Food Culture and Conflict

Our world, though a beautiful place, has constantly been plagued with conflict.


The human mind, capable of so much good and kindness, is also capable of unspeakable cruelty. From war to genocide to the forced displacement of marginalized people, conflict is, unfortunately, something the majority of the human race has or will be impacted by.


Though it is easy to see the physical damage of conflict on our world and to understand the cost in terms of human life, conflicts often have a more subtle and long lasting effect on the culture of the people involved.


Today you can read headlines of terrorist groups destroying ancient monuments, an attempt to literally rewrite their history.


In the not too distant past in the United States, Native American children were taken from their homes and placed in government schools in an attempt to eliminate the passing on of their culture's traditional customs and ways of living.


It has been said that when one man dies, it is devastating to those who knew him, but when a culture is destroyed, you are destroying the memory of all the people who ever contributed to that vast collective cultural knowledge.


 Conflict and war have serious effects on traditional ways of life and culture

Unfortunately, one of the first aspects of a culture to disappear in times of conflict is food culture.


It makes sense. When people are fleeing for their lives or starving in a detention camp, they aren't really concerned with what they have to eat, so long as it feeds them.


People are also able to more quickly adjust to a new diet. Take away a culture's language, by say forbidding it, and people will be much more likely to fight the change. Tell people they have to eat a new diet and you will likely see no serious resistance.

You see this every day in refugee camps and among displaced people.


The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and food security in the world. It is often on the front lines of conflict regions, helping in refugee camps and feeding the victims of conflicts.


They address hunger with food baskets, that while truly lifesaving, are pretty standard regardless of the region being impacted. The food baskets consist of staples like wheat flour, rice, or corn and additional items like lentils or chickpeas that provide high-calorie intake along with essential nutrients.


The problem is that conflicts are very rarely a short-term problem and many of the people being fed by these nonprofit food organizations will have to rely on their help for weeks, months, and even sometimes years.


Children grow up in refugee camps, eating only what is given in the food baskets and a few items that might be grown by the refugee community in the camp or bought from local farmers.


 Nonprofit programs help feed refugees but often supply non-traditional foods


It can be hard to see the issue but I'd ask you to imagine an Italian child in a situation like this. Imagine him growing up far from home in a refugee camp, never tasting pasta, pizza, tomatoes, or parmesan cheese?  Sure, the child might grow up healthy and happy but he will have lost out on an important part of his culture's identity.


Even if the conflict were to end and the people to return home, a whole generation would have been impacted.


Just because someone doesn't end up in a refugee camp or reliant on a food organization like the WFP doesn't mean they too won't suffer the effects of conflict on their cultural identity.


Displaced people are often stranded far from home, in lands unfamiliar to them.


Farmers, if they manage to get some land, will often find they can't grow their traditional crops - whether because the climate is incompatible or the market for the produce nonexistent. Traditional recipes are thrown out the door as finding the ingredients can be practically impossible.


Refugees that manage to settle in Western countries are often "encouraged" to adapt to the new community. Many immigrant children have stories of being shamed in school for bringing "weird food" and find it is easier to just "adapt," even if it is at the expense of losing a part of their cultural identity.

Of course, in times of conflict there are things more important than insuring refugees and displaced people have access to their traditional foods. Preserving life is the number one goal.


However, we must realize that even a temporary stress on a person's cultural identity can have long term effects on a community.


In one generation, cultural traditions, developed over millennia can be forgotten and lost. Food culture, an easily overlooked part of a society's cultural makeup can be lost even faster, simply because it is given so little importance.


 Even when conflicts end, there is a long-term effect on the culture of the people involved

Conflicts can end, refugees can return home, but will they still find it as home?


Native American children, taken from their communities for "schooling" returned home years late, unable to speak their native language, ignorant of their community's religious traditions, and having missed out on learning all the unique knowledge of their people.


Today, Native Americans are still trying to find their place in the old traditions and to recover the lost knowledge. This includes the cultural knowledge of food - rediscovering the indigenous ingredients their ancestors would gather, recreating the recipes their great grandmothers would make, and understanding the once forgotten culinary traditions of their people.


Every time there is conflict, these are things at risk of being lost forever.


There is a lack of understanding of the importance of preserving a marginalized or refugee community's cultural identity.


If you hope to give people the chance to fully recover from conflict and return to their homes to rebuild, you have to realize that preserving who they are, as members of a unique cultural community, is just as important as preserving their life.


Just as we can't allow physical genocide, we also shouldn't stand for cultural genocide and the unnecessary destruction of a people's cultural identity.


Each community on our planet has something to contribute to the complex diversity of human existence, from their religious practices to their culinary traditions, and all must be treated as valuable and precious.