Greasy Burgers or Toxic Veggies? The Dilemma of Nairobi’s Unhealthy Food Environment

January 21, 2016

As a public health specialist I have always been a strong advocate of healthy eating.  By healthy I mean consuming more fruits and vegetables, and eating less junk food.

Scientific evidence shows that consuming at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day can prolong your life and reduce your risk of developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and cancer.

Yet not enough people across the world are consuming adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables. In the slums of Nairobi, research conducted by my colleagues and I has shown that less than half of the adult population are meeting their daily fruit or vegetable requirement.

Ironically, one of the slums where this research was conducted had a thriving fruit & vegetable market right in its center. In fact, some major supermarkets in Nairobi have been known to source the produce on their shelves from this very market.

So, why are slum residents seemingly ignoring this easy access to a healthier option in their midst? Initially we thought that the prices of fruits and vegetables was prohibitive for slum residents given that majority of them live on less than two U.S dollars a day.

It turns out that price is not the main deterrent. While imported fruits such as pomegranates may, understandably, be expensive, local produce such as bananas or the trendy superfood kale – a Kenyan staple for generations known as sukuma wiki, or ‘stretch the week’ – are surprisingly affordable.

In fact, just a few years ago we brought in a group known as Nutritionists Without Borders to teach slum residents who had hypertension or diabetes how to prepare low-cost healthy food using locally sourced ingredients including vegetables. These cooking classes were a big hit!

So cost was not really a major issue. When we dug a bit deeper through focus group discussions, we found that there was a social desirability issue: slum residents wanted junk food since it reflected a higher socioeconomic status.

And who could blame them? They must have watched in envy as the rich and famous queued up for hours and took selfies at the opening of a global fast-food chain in Nairobi several months ago.

Now, while we were busy trying to figure out how to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables among slum residents, one of the major dailies in Kenya published a bombshell of an article.

According to that article, laboratory tests conducted by scientists on samples of fruits and vegetables from across Nairobi had shown toxic levels of various substances.

For example, it turns out that samples of sukuma wiki had shown high levels of lead, most likely from contaminated riverbeds where this vegetable was typically grown. Samples of fruits such as bananas and oranges had high levels of calcium carbide: normally used to hasten the ripening of fruits.

You can imagine my shock and horror when I read that article. First as a human being, because I felt that my own health could be at risk considering that I am a faithful consumer of sukuma wiki and bananas in particular.

And secondly as a public health expert it left me thoroughly confused. What message do I pass to the slum residents of Nairobi? Do I ask them to eat more fruits and vegetables given the revelations in that news article? Or do I ask them to stick with junk food until the relevant authorities get their acts together and halt the illicit practices affecting the fruit and vegetable industry?

Clearly this is a catch-22 situation and I will not even begin to pretend that I have a solution. One thing I know for sure though is that it is about time that developing countries like Kenya reviewed their food and agricultural policies.

There is an urgent need for national food and agricultural policies that protect the lives of people by:

  • Promoting access to healthy food
  • Regulating the production, sale and marketing of junk food (and drinks)
  • Ensuring that the food supply chain is free of toxic chemicals, drugs and other contaminants
  • Minimizing the effects of food production on climate change and vice versa

As a friend once humorously pointed out, “At this rate the only thing that will be healthy to eat will be the air…oh wait, even that is already polluted!”

A far-fetched statement perhaps, but I wouldn’t take a chance on it and neither should our governments.