Putting food at the
Centre of the
Case study from
Dr Helen M. Hill
Honorary Fellow, College of Arts,
Presentation to Development Futures Conference,
University of Technology, Sydney
21st - 22nd November 2013
The problematique and argument
The issue of food, its production, distribution, preparation,
nutritional adequacy and the task of putting in place
systems to ensure its sustainability, have barely been
addressed by governments or aid agencies anywhere.
Every country’s history impacts on its food system. TimorLeste has a particularly high level of stunting and
wasting, partly explicable by the 24 years of war.
The aid system tends to divide reality up into ‘sectors’
which are not necessarily the most useful for
addressing issues such as food and nutrition.
The importance of History
ANU Anthropologist James Fox observed in 2003 that
Portuguese Timor had a ‘Mexican stye’ cuisine, based
on maize, pumpkin/squash, and cassava as basic staples
together with mung bean, taro, sweet potato peanut,
watermelon, papaya, chilli, tomato eggplant, Chinese and
European cabbage and potato (Fox 2003: 107-8).
The famine of 1980 and subsequent introduction of large
scale irrigation to grow paddy rice by the Indonesians put
an end to this diversity and introduced the Hungry Season.
An Indonesian Army economic program the KUD deskilled
farmers, turning them into wage laborers doing the bidding
of soldiers and profited the army.
Four ways of looking at Food
1. As Part of Nature and the
Environment, plants and animals which
have been domesticated by human
beings, ways of growing them and
In Timor-Leste this has been disrupted by
war and famine (1980) during the 24 year
occupation, which also led to the loss of
the forests and promoted climate change.
2. Food as Nutriment
Food can also be looked at as primarily
nourishment for humans and animals;
adequate supplies of protein, carbohydrate, fibre
and micronutrients are needed for human
flourishing. These are deficient in most Timorese
diets, even those of the middle class.
Knowledge and attitudes are key elements in
determining whether people get adequate
nourishment; but access to supplies is also vital.
The right to food is a human right - the UN has a
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
3. Food as Commodity
Food ingredients are commodities traded internationally
and locally, playing a part in Global economic
exchanges, creating jobs and livelihoods and foreign
exchange which helps countries, but also subject to
speculation and fraud.
In Timor-Leste most food is still traded through the
subsistence sector and insufficient efforts have been
made to create a adequate internal cash market in food.
International speculation in food commodities, food futures
and derivatives means that many are not following the
‘normal’ rules of economics and small countries suffer.
4. Food as Culture
Food is part of culture reflecting the history of a
country, its cuisine, status of crops as ingredients, and
influence of tradition or disruption of it all play their part.
Gender relations are historically important to food as
culture with the split between agriculture (men) and
home economics (women) leading to the
‘breadwinner/homemaker’ divide brought in by
Timor-Leste barely recognizes food as culture, unlike
Vanuatu which celebrated the ‘Year of the Traditional
Economy’ and uses crops in all kinds of ceremonies.
The ‘Hungry Season’ What is it?
The ‘Hungry Season’ is part of an Indonesian discourse
that asserted that rice was the only ‘civilized’ staple crop
and marginalized discussion of what needed to be eaten
with it. (i.e. fruits, vegetables and protein). The Hungry
Season is when rice is not being harvested.
While there are also difficulties with root crops during the
wet season, Ego Lemos, UNTL Lecturer in Sustainable
Agriculture argues there are plenty of other staples which
can be used during this season such as Jackfruit,
Breadfruit, cooking bananas etc. most of them more
nutritious than rice (which has hardly any food value).
Attempts to Address Nutrition
Medical Model – the MDGs limit this to under 5’s
• HIAM Health
• SISCa (Government’s preventive health program)
• Supplementary feeding (Timor Vita, Guri Guri Gizi etc.
• School feeding program (WFP project, imported food)
• Media campaigns, publishing recipe books
• Food based dietary guidelines (not happening yet)
• Home economics in schools and universities (may be)
Seeds of Life Nutritionist
Permaculture’s improved kitchen management
Gaps Identified in TimorLesste’s food system
The conference identified a number of gaps in
Timor-Leste’s system for dealing with food.
- Dualism between ‘tradition’ & ‘modern’ in
production, cuisine, and thinking.
- Absence of food from formal education, no
training for farmers, ‘hidden curriculum.
- Poor level of cooking technology
- Lack of awareness of food diversity, cooking
methods, nutritional principles.
- Absence of food from all types of media
None of these can really be addressed by aid?