Studying Food Culture and Changing Global Diets in Samoa and Beyond

By Hadas Yanay, alumna of the SIT Study Abroad Samoa program



My interest in food culture, nutrition, and public health merged during my undergraduate semester abroad in Samoa, through SIT Study Abroad.

In Samoa, I observed the country’s sudden and rapid shift from a traditional, subsistence-based economy into a developing, market economy. Through homestays, program excursions, and independent research, I witnessed the ill effects of globalization on Samoan people’s health. With the introduction of imported, packaged foods into the Samoan diet and the adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle, non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, coronary disease, and related cancers became more prevalent.

While living in a homestay in a rural part of the island, I was struck by both the quantity and frequency with which the family bought imported packaged Ramen noodles, tinned meats, Wonder Bread, and butter on an island where local breadfruit, taro, coconuts, and fish were plentiful and affordable. I became interested in Samoans’ idealization of foreign products and the devaluation of local ones, as a way to understand the island’s growing health concerns.

The program’s excursion to neighboring American Samoa, an island nation heavily influenced by American culture and industrialization, further demonstrated to me the correlation between reduced health and the industrialized food culture.

I was astonished by the number of American fast food chains and supermarkets that crowded the small island. During my stay, I lived with a university student and her elderly aunt who rarely left the house because of her severe case of gout and diabetes, which had caused her to go blind.

The experience offered me an invaluable comparison between Independent Samoa, which was only in the beginning stages of globalization and American Samoa, whose traditional culture and lifestyle had clearly eroded with the arrival of American industry. I wondered how Independent Samoa would cope with the challenges that lay ahead.

Inspired by what I had learned, I worked with the local nutrition center and teacher’s college in Samoa to research the effectiveness of the health and physical education curriculum for my Independent Study Project. The new curriculum had been put into place to address the country’s growing health concerns by encouraging routine exercise and healthy consumption habits among the youth.

However, while conducting interviews, I became aware of the challenges of re-educating cultural norms. In a traditionally agrarian society, where laborious farm work was a part of daily life, a new emphasis on physical exercise outside of work and the introduction of physical fitness centers, was unusual and even comical to many Samoans. Although the curriculum had been only recently implemented, student surveys showed promising signs of increased awareness towards healthy living.

Nevertheless, I continued to think about the overarching ramifications of globalization for Samoan culture. I wondered whether the new curriculum, though targeting Samoan health, was also contributing to the erosion of traditional Samoan culture and lifestyle.

It was clear to me that foods eaten demonstrate how diet, nutrition, and health depend on less controllable matters, such as poverty, conflict, and globalization. I began to question the meaning of development and whether it was possible for a developing nation to transition into the 21st century without jeopardizing the traditional cuisine and health of its people.

Following my experience in the South Pacific, where I saw how a devaluation of traditional farming practices distanced people from their food sources and contributed to an unhealthy lifestyle, I turned to question my own relationship to food.

To strengthen this relationship, I worked on an eco-educational, self-sustainable farm in Israel as an apprentice and later as an educator. My experience on the farm redirected my interest to the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population, while maintaining a healthy environment.

I learned about methods of small-scale, sustainable agriculture and design. Living in a yurt, using compost toilets, and growing my own food taught me the value of self-reliance and simplicity in my everyday life.

Today, I am looking to bring together this new perspective and an understanding of sustainable development to target concerns related to changing global diets. I am now applying to graduate programs focused on sustainable development to move forward with my endeavors in playing a vital role in the way we nourish ourselves.

My experience with SIT in Samoa left an indelible mark on my interests and goals.

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One Response to Studying Food Culture and Changing Global Diets in Samoa and Beyond

  1. Micah Van der Ryn December 4, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Very informative and readable article highlighting important issues for Samoans and American Samoa on health, social change and culture. I remember Hadas when she came to visit us at American Samoa Community College and I a couple of presentations. Malo lava Hadas. Congratulations on a very nice article!