The Cayman Islands has the highest GDP per capita of all the Caribbean Islands – but that doesn’t mean there is no poverty here. Scratch below the shiny, sophisticated surface and it quickly becomes apparent that hunger is a serious and persistent issue in the Islands.
Meals on Wheels, which prioritises the sick and elderly, serves around 40,000 hot meals each year to vulnerable citizens. A 2013 report stated that one in four children in government schools were receiving financial assistance to pay for lunch, and teachers regularly report spending their own money to buy snacks and lunches for students who have not eaten breakfast or don’t have the $5 required to pay for a school lunch.
Whilst the Government provides some assistance to those in greatest need, it is often churches, charities and service clubs that are stepping in to fill the gaps.
As education professionals point out, a child whose most basic physical needs – food and shelter – are not being met, cannot thrive physically, emotionally or academically. Hunger and malnutrition are literally robbing Cayman’s youngest citizens of a successful future.
Across Cayman, children of all ages are arriving at school hungry or going without lunch. Teachers know the signs of a hungry child all too well: they are often unable to focus, they are irritable and argumentative, or listless and lethargic, and appear unwilling to learn. If they are hungry, they are simply not able to concentrate.
Food insecurity also affects a child psychologically. “Children who have not been fed regularly and according to a routine may not register hunger, or even feel full,” Dr Lam, a clinical psychologist specialising in complex trauma in children explains. “Their bodies are preoccupied with survival and they struggle to integrate. They are often hyper-vigilant and constantly stressed and worried.”
Lack of access to regular nutritious meals also impacts their ability to get along with their peers. Michael Myles, the former Department of Education Liaison Officer for at risk youth has seen it first hand. “Children who are not fed have many behavioural issues. They are distracted, aggressive and moody,” he observes. “I have worked with children who have disrupted the learning of their peers consistently. Sadly, these children may become hoarders of food and/or develop eating disorders or other mental health and behaviour issues.”
One educator Cayman Parent spoke to explained that whilst the hunger may be temporary, the consequences can follow them through later life. Some high school students are sitting exams without having had a square meal which means they are more likely to fail or do badly and a child who does not reach his full academic potential in school is less likely to go on to further education and to secure a well-paid job in adulthood. Thus the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.
There is no single reason why so many people in Cayman are living in poverty. It’s a combination of factors: wages, particularly for unskilled jobs, have stagnated in recent years, while the cost of living has increased.
“Approximately 50% of our local population earns less than $2,500 a month,” Michael Myles says. “Citizens are having to choose between paying their mortgages, electricity, water bills and gas for their cars or feeding their children.”
In countries where income tax is paid, those earning the most pay more taxes, whereas in Cayman duty is instead levied on all imports – including almost all food items – so the costs are assumed by all citizens regardless of their income level. The poorest in the community are therefore paying the same high prices for food, utilities and healthcare as the wealthiest.
The number of young, single mothers is also high. The youngest of these may have left school early with few qualifications, so struggle to find work, and often receive no help from the fathers of their children.
But aside from this, it is the unexpected events such as employment redundancies, injury or illness that can strip a household of its main source of income, or eat up its savings, and tip it into poverty.
Back in the 1980s when images coming from famine-affected areas showed emaciated adults and children with bellies swollen by malnutrition, hunger was clearly associated with thinness. But in today’s developed world, hunger and poor nutrition can look very different. A child who is overweight can still be malnourished: obesity is often the other side of the same coin.
The cheapest and most readily available foods – bread, pasta, rice, sugary snacks and drinks, deep fried foods and cheese-loaded pizzas – are the most unhealthy. Unfortunately, humans are hard-wired, through millennia of evolution, to crave foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt, and to eat as much of them as we can. It’s a hangover from hunter gathering times when such foods were scarce, so when humans had access to them their brains told them to eat as much as possible to see them through the hard times.
Nowadays, there is an abundance of these high-energy foods, so we keep eating them, whilst we become increasingly sedentary, and so do not burn off the energy. As well as leading to weight gain and clogging up arteries, these highly processed foods lack lots of essential nutrients. For example in junk food there is: little fibre which can lead to constipation; a lack of antioxidants which help boost moods; and no vitamin C which is essential for all round health.
For households on limited budgets, foods like bread, pasta and rice are cheap and filling, and for time-pressed, cash-poor parents, who do not have the luxury of being able to shop for and prepare fresh produce, healthy grains and lean meats, a microwavable meal is an affordable and convenient alternative.
As this type of food has become increasingly available, and at lower prices than healthier alternatives, our food habits have changed. The consequences of this modern diet are particularly evident in the youngest sectors of society, who may have been largely brought up on such diets: around one third of school children entering government schools, and even higher numbers of high school students in Cayman, are now overweight or obese.
Aside from the immediate effects that a lack of healthy food has on developing bodies and minds, there is the future cost of healthcare to consider: obesity is well known to be linked to a whole host of chronic conditions including type II diabetes, heart disease, asthma, stroke and certain forms of cancer. If escalating obesity levels are not addressed, the future long-term costs of looking after those suffering from these conditions could be crippling for the country.
The Department of Child and Family Services runs a variety of programmes to help struggling families and will refer those with limited finances to the Needs Assessment Unit. The NAU in turn provides financial assistance in the form of relief for the poor, school uniforms, food vouchers, school lunch vouchers and more.
In 2013 the NAU provided 769 children with school lunches and over 900 families with assistance. However, by 2016 (the last year for which statistics are available) the number of children receiving free school lunches dropped to 225.
Deputy Director of the NAU, Matthew Hylton, explains the decrease in assistance provided by the Government is in part due to the presence of organisations like Feed Our Future, a charity that provides school lunches to over 200 children per year, but notes that the “NAU also encourages our clients to try to exhaust all available resources, including seeking maintenance assistance from fathers for child expenses.”
Critics argue that the Government is letting charities pick up the slack in terms of social welfare. There is also concern that the application process is unnecessarily long and complex. Knowing who and where to ask for help can be daunting and time consuming, to the extent that it deters some from even trying to access this help through government channels. Instead, they rely on the assistance provided by community groups and local charities.
On the other hand, social services do not have unlimited funds, so they must direct their resources to those in the most dire straits. This requires a stringent screening process – hence the lengthy applications. To avoid creating a culture of dependency the NAU also requires that those receiving assistance be actively seeking employment.
The problem is that the borderline cases – those who are living in poverty but fail to qualify for assistance – fall through the cracks, and can then end up being the most at risk.
Unfortunately, it has also been noted that with private sector organisations there are instances where the system has been abused. Michael Myles has witnessed “parents that were earning well over $4,000 a month, driving expensive cars, who were applying for this. There are also parents who would take their children on summer vacation trips and then apply for assistance with school lunches. The school system was faced with a very unfortunate decision, do they reward bad behaviour from parents or make the child go hungry?”
It’s a tricky situation, but as far as making sure kids are fed, the most straightforward answer may also have the widest-reaching benefits, says Stacey VanDevelde, chairwoman of Feed Our Future. “A longer term solution to tackle the issue of hunger and, more importantly, improve the health and academic performance of our children would be to make access to a basic and healthy meal a standard part of the school day, for ALL students.” This would ensure no child missed out on a meal because their family hadn’t qualified for (or asked for) assistance, and it would ensure all children were eating at least one healthy meal per day, and schools as a whole – teachers and children – would benefit from less disruptive, distracted students.
Numerous churches, community groups, service organisations and charities are working alongside schools and social services to identify those most in need, distribute food and ensure children don’t suffer through school without a meal. However, as the adage goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
Whilst all those helping to keep Cayman’s most vulnerable fed are doing an invaluable job, there is a shift towards not only giving ‘hand-outs’ but giving children and their families that all important ‘hand up’ i.e. the tools and knowledge to be able to prepare affordable, nutritious meals at home.
Feed Our Future, which was established in 2011, works tirelessly to ensure children have access to healthy school meals. In addition to providing free lunches however, they also host life skills workshops twice per year, for children and their families. These are run by volunteer chefs and dieticians and demonstrate how to use or stretch what they have and how to prepare healthier meals that will benefit the whole family’s wellbeing.
Two years ago, chef and wellness expert Maureen Cubbon, who heads up the Cayman Islands Food Revolution, launched the Seed2Plate programme. Run in partnership with the YMCA, this after school programme sets up kitchen gardens in several government primary schools. The children then get involved in growing and harvesting produce to use it to prepare fresh, healthy meals.
Education is essential to teach the community not only about the dangers of poor nutrition, but also to equip them with the skills to budget wisely, source affordable, healthy food, and prepare wholesome meals.
“The goal is to teach children about where their food comes from, local agriculture, sustainability and spark their passion for cooking,” Maureen explains. “It is proven that experience-based teaching can be impactful – this was one of the biggest motivators to bring this programme to life, taking a farm-to-table approach with the gardens and integrating the excitement around learning how to cook.”
The children, she adds, are enthused and open to trying new foods, which makes it particularly rewarding. Her hope is that through the programme, children will gain a better understanding of where food comes from and will develop healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.
Established in December 2017, the Good Samaritan’s Food Bank, works with partner organisations to collect and distribute non-perishable food items and to recycle food that might otherwise go to waste. It is also committed to providing nutritional education and positive programming for youth. In the future, they also plan to have local chefs running cooking classes to teach food handling and cooking skills.Thanks to these programmes, families are being given the tools to change poor diets and can look forward to improved health and wellbeing.
The following organisations and groups all do invaluable work fighting hunger in Cayman, and need all the support they can get. Whether it is attending a fundraiser, donating cash, food items or vouchers, or volunteering some time – everyone can contribute to giving the poorest members of the community a helping hand and a chance at a brighter future. Start a conversation with your local Member of Parliament about the idea of providing a basic free lunch to all school children in Cayman.
For families in need or to get involved, contact these organisations to find out more.
Read about the Meals on Wheels event on Thanksgiving day.
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