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Power in Pulses: Using Beans To Reduce Food Insecurity

Beans to Reduce Food InsecurityFoods accessible to low-income populations often face stigma. For instance, there are many who consider food items like beans as plain or last-resort options. However, beans are far from plain. Across the globe, these legumes are staple foods in many diets, and there is compelling evidence supporting their potential to reduce global food insecurity.

Food Insecurity

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes a person as food insecure when they “lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA (ERS), around 1.3 billion people in low and middle-income countries met this definition in 2022.

According to the World Bank’s 2023 data, 61.1% of low-income countries are experiencing more than 5% food price inflation. Rising food prices lead to people being unable to afford basic necessities and resorting to skipping meals, sometimes for days. Unfortunately, the cheapest foods are often the least nutritious, increasing the risk of malnutrition and diseases like diabetes. Natural disasters and geopolitical crises in developing countries can disrupt food production and trade, resulting in food shortages. Lack of sanitation can also compromise accessible food supplies, leading to the spread of diseases.

Food insecurity affects both child and adult health. The Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates for 2022 show that, globally, one in five children under the age of 5 suffer from stunting. These children are at risk of experiencing cognitive delays that impact their development into adulthood. Malnourished adults are less productive, making them more susceptible to diseases and less capable of working.

The Benefits of Beans

Beans, considered one of the “pulses” harvested for their high protein, fiber and low-fat content, offer a host of benefits to the dinner table and beyond. Incorporating beans into diets can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes. These nutrient-rich legumes provide numerous advantages, making them a valuable addition to a healthy diet.

In addition to their nutritional value, beans are a cost-effective option. Beans and other pulses are cheaper than animal-based proteins and one can store them dried or canned for longer periods of time, reducing food waste. The high levels of complex carbohydrates and fiber in beans provide lasting energy and satisfaction.

Beans are an environmentally-friendly option as compared to meat. It takes 43 gallons of water to produce one pound of pulses, whereas it takes 800 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. Moreover, beans are highly adaptable and can thrive in various weather conditions. This makes beans a practical solution for reducing food insecurity in regions that experience harsh weather conditions.

The Issue of Labels

Despite its benefits, beans still attract stigma. For many, this food is a quintessential poverty meal and is disregarded in favor of meat. In her piece on the subject, Nikesha Elise Williams recounts her husband’s perception of the food and how he felt he “had no choice but to swallow and stomach” it. Unfortunately, Williams’ experience is not uncommon. Perceptions like these create negative associations with beans and may even deter people from eating this healthy source of high-quality nutrients.

Beans Around the World

Despite the stigma surrounding beans, the food remains a part of many cultures due to its nutritional and cultural values. People cook staple meals with beans in countries like Mexico, Italy and Zambia. The following are few of the different ways in which cultures around the world enjoy beans.

  1. Frijoles De La Olla: Stewed beans form the basis of many traditional Mexican dishes, simple yet delicious and commonly served with rice and tortillas.
  2. Pasta e Fagioli: A dish of pasta, beans and sauce, part of Italy’s “cucina povera” or “peasant food” tradition, known for its simplicity and accessibility.
  3. Kabulangeti Beans: Sugar beans popular in Zambia, cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices, featured in various traditional meals and widely available.

Organizing Around Beans

Many are starting to realize the potential of beans to reduce food insecurity. There are entire organizations centering beans as a poverty solution.

Slow Food, an Italian-based organization founded in 1989, aims to ensure access to nutritious and safe food for all.” The organization’s Slow Beans network is aimed at educating people on the benefits and traditions of eating beans. In 2020, it launched the Let It Bean! campaign in collaboration with Meatless Monday. It aimed to increase knowledge of how to cook beans and support local bean producers. Slow Food started in Italy but is now active in more than 1,600 areas of the world.

The Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) is dedicated to improving food security, income and health for smallholder farmers and urban dwellers across Africa.” PABRA works in 31 countries in Africa. Its work includes breeding more resilient and nutrient-dense bean varieties, helping farmers maximize bean production in an affordable and environmentally-friendly way. The organization also helps farmers sell their beans in the world markets.

Looking Ahead

In the face of food insecurity, beans prove to be a powerful ally. Rich in nutrients and cost-effective, these legumes offer multiple health benefits while being environmentally friendly. Organizations like Slow Food and the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance are championing beans as a solution to poverty and malnutrition, promoting education and innovation to harness their potential. By challenging stigma and embracing the cultural and nutritional value of beans, communities worldwide can take a significant step toward reducing food insecurity and building a healthier, more sustainable future.

– Yesenia Aguilera
Photo: Flickr