When travelling it’s good to pay attention to local lifestyles, because what people eat and buy reflect a very intimate aspect of our societies. More and more, however, I’ve seen the same chicken soup, the same toothpaste, and the same soda in (more or less) the same plastic packaging in supermarkets wherever I go, be it Albania, Dubai or Ethiopia. Meanwhile I’ve seen kids scoffing the same Big Macs as far afield as Russia and Turkey.
It’s no secret that a dozen corporations have managed to become worldwide consumer ‘standards’, so that millions of people now eat pretty much the same ‘thing’ in any big city. On the one hand we’re locked into synthetic seeds from Monsanto, and on the other the ‘always low prices’ from Wal-Mart.
In Colombia we still haven’t grasped the damage that we’re causing with these eating patterns. We value disposable fast food over home-made, local and organic products. We prefer to buy frozen vegetables (without even knowing where they come from) than fresh vegetables sold by our own farmers near our own cities (which are obviously more expensive).
Fortunately, there are many citizens committed to raising awareness about our eating habits. In Medellín, for example, there is a magical place that promotes a more sustainable and responsible diet. ‘Verdeo’ is a restaurant founded by Amalia Villegas and Felipe Hernández, a couple who are dedicated and passionate about these issues. Verdeo serves gourmet, healthy, tasty food made without animal protein.
Yet, beyond thinking of Verdeo as a business model, Felipe and Amalia designed the restaurant as a lifestyle: a gamble in a country where any restaurant that doesn’t offer a variety of meat seems doomed to fail. In fact, Verdeo has been such a success because it has filled a gap in the market. Now, over lunch, there are hundreds of local customers, and at night the place is packed with tourists from all continents; a bit “like a United Colors of Benetton TV ad”, they say.
This fantastic corner of Medellin is not just for vegetarians. It is very far from being a place that, as some people think, only serves ‘salads’. From the outset, they’ve worked hard on changing preconceptions about vegetarian food, about it being bland and tasteless, with a view to making vegetarian options accessible to everyone. Amalia tells me with eyes that glow when talking about their achievements, “you don’t have to speak Japanese to eat sushi”. What they’ve managed to do is to change people’s mindsets about healthy and responsible food.
As the world faces epidemics of obesity, diabetes and malnutrition due to our addiction to processed food, we continue to destroy the fertility of our soils. Entrepreneurs Felipe and Amalia have opened a window for us on to eating habits that are more responsible for our societies and healthier for our bodies.
So please take this as an invitation to change your eating habits before the doctor makes you. Remember that in the end, as we were told by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in the early 1800’s: “we are what we eat”.
by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at UNU-MERIT / School of Governance. First published in El Mundo, 25 February 2013. Images: Flickr / J.Cancela / C.Mari. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.