Food Apartheid in the Pacific

Dear Asian Youth,

Have you ever been to Hawai’i? Guam? How about American Samoa? Maybe you haven’t traveled to the Pacific, but chances are you’ve tried the most popular foods from these regions. What do you think of when you think of Pacific Island foods? Probably SPAM, Loco Moco, or maybe you think of the Hawai’ian plate lunch that often consists of various BBQ meats from different Asian cultures, rice, and potato mac salad. We enjoy these foods (because yes, they are delicious), but have you ever stopped to wonder where these dishes came from? What was their origin? By questioning the history of the foods we love, we have the opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the beautiful cultures from which they originate. However, in learning these histories, it is also important to be conscious of the oppressive forces that contribute to these foods and determine the lifestyles and health outcomes of so many people.

To understand the history behind many of these foods, it is important to understand the greater global history that has long affected the Pacific Islands. While many of us from the mainland US think of these places as a tropical paradise or vacation destination, these islands have a much more extensive and problematic history than many of us realize. Hawai’i is a prime example: “the 50th US state”. Did you know that Hawai’i was illegally annexed into the United States? Yes, you read that right, the Hawaiian Kingdom was unlawfully invaded by United States marines on January 16, 1893, which led to an illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian government the following day. Similarly, you might have heard of an island called Guam, a US territory well-known on the mainland for the US military base it houses. Guam was annexed as a military strategy due to its proximity to Asia. And so, like Hawai’i, Guam also entered the hands of the US through histories of militarism and imperialism; as did American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. These islands all have so much to offer as they are each so uniquely beautiful and rich in culture. However, this was not the reason the US chose to acquire them. The US stole these islands, so that they could have control over the land for their own military agenda; in doing so, they have oppressed the islands’ peoples and tried to strip them of their cultures over the course of generations.

Allow me to elaborate. When these islands were colonized, the Indigenous people were encouraged to adopt western culture, giving up their traditional forms of healing, art, music, and more. While many Indigenous folks have worked hard to preserve their cultures, they still live under a colonial power that does not include them in its systems. When an entire race of people is encouraged to abandon their traditional lifestyle, it becomes difficult to keep the culture alive and well through generations. On top of that, the US continues to take advantage of these islands, trying to steal what little they have left. A prime example is what happened just last year, when the US tried to build a giant telescope at a sacred mountain called Mauna Kea. Fortunately, in this case, the protests were successful, and the US decided not to build the telescope; but this is yet another example of the US prioritizing their own scientific and military domination at the expense of Indigenous people. However, Mauna Kea is also an excellent example of the resilience and resistance of Pacific Islanders. To this day, Pacific Islanders are still fighting for sovereignty and independence as the US continues to exploit their islands’ resources and erase their cultures.

You might ask, what does this have to do with food? Well, as we can all agree, food is such an important aspect of culture. If you have read my previous articles, you know that we have extensively explored the ways in which cultural foods are an expression of love, a tool of communication, and a tie back to our roots. So, what do you think happens when these foods are actively erased by an oppressive power?

I first heard the term “Food Apartheid” when I was on a UCLA Summer Travel Study Program in Guam with Dr. Keith Camacho, who defines food apartheid as, “the systematic support for cheap processed foods over locally produced foods.” For Oceania, this is a unique situation. Because of their climates and geographies, islands like Guam or Hawai’i cultivate very different types of produce than the mainland, but since they are controlled by the US government, they are held to the same food guidelines as the rest of the US. In 1962, the US came up with The Needy Family Food Program, which focused on providing food to poor communities in the US. While this program was introduced with inner city, low-income communities in mind, it also included Pacific Islands, as the island communities were considered poor in comparison to the wealth on the mainland. However, programs like these have historically ignored the best interest of the people they are supposedly “helping” by providing food that is simply surplus or food waste and labeling it as “food aid.” The food they sent to the islands was often rice and canned meats overloaded with fat and sodium. What’s even worse is that these programs measured their success not by the health outcome of the participants but rather by the number of people who engaged in the programs. As a result, food aid programs like The Needy Family Food Program were considered to be extremely successful. In reality however, they devalued the natural foods on the islands in favor of canned meats that catalyzed major health problems within these island communities that still persist today.

In addition to the damage these programs have done to health and wellness in Oceania, the entire rhetoric around food in the US is not inclusive of Pacific Island cultures and does not consider their differences in resources. Dr. Keith Camacho notes that “nothing on the USDA food pyramid is locally available on islands even though nutritional local foods do exist on the island.” This has impacted Indigenous families by assuming they needed guidance in determining their diets and creating a guideline for them that is unrealistic given their natural environment. What are you supposed to do if you are told you need to eat apples and pears to be healthy, but these foods do not grow on your island? All of these mainland foods must be imported onto the island, which drives up the cost significantly. I remember my utter shock during my first week in Guam when I saw how expensive the supermarket fruits were. The local, nutritious produce like breadfruit and coconut were systematically devalued by the USDA, leaving island families to believe that if they could not afford expensive imported food, they had little else to turn to besides inexpensive canned meats like SPAM or corned beef and excessive carbohydrates like rice.

This is largely the reason why many of the most popular dishes on these islands contain so much fat and sodium and often involve canned meats. However, other aspects of US control and imperialism have contributed to this as well. SPAM, for example, became very popular during WWII as inexpensive and non-perishable foods are perfect for feeding soldiers in the military. Hawai’i at this time was a war zone and as Mark Noguchi points out, “during the war, there was this constant fear of shipments of food suddenly not making it to Hawaii anymore, so a lot of people during that time had a tendency to hoard things like Spam and toilet paper.” Sounds familiar right? SPAM is now a major staple of Hawai’ian cuisine, largely because of the US militarism that created conditions that forced islanders to adapt by making use of what was available to them.

All of the island dishes we order at Hawai’ian BBQ are delicious. No one can argue with that. I love SPAM musubi just as much as the next person (probably more). However, they are also packed with way more fat, sodium, sugar, and carbs than any healthy person should be consuming on a regular basis. Pacific Islanders have not only had their land taken by oppressive western powers like the US, but their diets have been colonized as well. Nutritious local island foods have been systematically devalued for generations and replaced with inexpensive and unhealthy alternatives through “food aid” programs and military influence. Because of this, these islands face public health problems that are directly caused by western influence. On top of this, so much of Pacific Islanders’ Indigenous cultures have been lost in the process of being colonized, and this includes food. As an Asian American, how would you feel if your cultural foods never had the chance to be passed down to you and were instead replaced with canned meats and excessive portions of rice? It is through resilience that Pacific Islanders have been able to utilize foods like SPAM to create new cultural dishes like SPAM musubi, so next time you order Hawai’ian BBQ, try to remember the origins of the food you are eating; because here at DAY, we don’t fill our bellies without decolonizing our minds in the process.

- Olivia