A Mission of Mercy

A Mission of Mercy

A Navy-borne voyage into the third world alters this columnist’s view of home.

By Leslie Bilderback 08/12/2013

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I just got home from another Navy training trip. (Regular readers may recall some of my previous adventures in Italy, Japan, Cuba and the Persian Gulf.) While I still spent the majority of my time training the Culinary Specialists (CS) of the USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52) in both basic and advanced culinary arts (they get little culinary training in boot camp,  and food service in the Navy needs a lot of help), this trip was unique. It was classified as a humanitarian mission and transported staff from international military and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)  that are members of the Pacific Partnership.

Begun as a response to Southeast Asia’s 2004 tsunami, the Pacific Partnership program has expanded to include not only relief efforts, but also medical, engineering and civic assistance. This international group of both military and civilian doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, disaster relief specialists and dietitians (plus one chef) brings badly needed healthcare and aid to the poorest islands in the South Pacific. I was on board for only three weeks, but the mission lasts six months.

I boarded in New Caledonia, a French island northeast of Australia, and sailed for six days to reach the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). During transport, I spent 12 to 14 hours a day training the young cooks responsible for feeding the 700 crew and passengers. It was a great group, which included — among the disgruntled bottom-rung enlisted sailors — a handful of conscientious food enthusiasts. Together we worked on improving the awful food dished up by the Navy, experimented with flavors of the region and practiced some classic techniques. (We made croissants, sourdough, gravlax, fondant and cream puffs from scratch, to name just a few.) The unusual product hitting the chow line was immediately apparent, and for the first time in my Navy training career I was asked to hold classes for the crew at large. Afternoon baking classes became quite popular, especially among the Pacific Partnership passengers, who really had nothing to do while underway except watch movies and work out in the gym. Once we hit land, these people worked their asses off. Offering classes was the least I could do.

In addition to my job as a culinary instructor, I was brought along as a nutrition advocate.  On the island of Majuro, the Air Force dietitian and I visited the hospital kitchen to review the menu and ensure it was adequately addressing the country’s devastating diabetes crisis. It was not. RMI recently declared a national health crisis. Seventy-five percent of the women and 50 percent of the men are obese. Thirty percent of people over the age of 15 have type 2 diabetes, and 50 percent over the age of 35 suffer from it. The majority of the surgeries performed throughout these atolls are diabetes-related amputations.  

The reason? The islands are so overcrowded that there is no longer room for agriculture. As a result, the indigenous food supply cannot support the population. Imported processed foods are cheaper than imported produce, and there is little to no nutrition education. Case in point, the hospital we visited was serving diabetic patients white rice, white bread, white potatoes and bananas.

On top of that, the islands have no health department, zero health standards and no sanitation requirements, resulting in perhaps the filthiest kitchens I have ever entered. A U.S. Army preventive medicine team was with us inspecting local eateries and swabbing doorknobs and food prep surfaces for traces of disease — of which they found plenty. (Thank goodness for MREs [meals ready to eat]. While I am usually game to try anything, I am not up for E. coli.)

At each island the Pacific Partnership set up a health fair, providing free medical testing (blood pressure, body mass, eyesight, dental, family planning and mental health) and handing out free eyeglasses, hygiene and first aid products. A Navy Band came along to draw in the crowds, which ranged from 200 to 500 a day. Doctors and nurses met with local medical staffs for training and consulted on various cases. Dentists performed hundreds of procedures a day, mostly extractions. Veterinarians spayed and neutered hundreds of animals a day. (I helped spay puppies on the island of Ebeye. They don’t usually spay puppies, but the pet overpopulation is as bad as that of the people.)  Navy, Air Force and Army personnel constructed or repaired exercise facilities, including a number of basketball courts and rugby fields, for the region’s favorite sports.

And me? I sat at a table with two piles of rice — one white and one brown — and tried to get the Marshallese to buy into the idea of a high-fiber diet. I prepared cheap dishes that focused on high-fiber content, using brown rice and local ingredients.

I explained repeatedly, with the help of translators, how important diet was in fighting diabetes. I urged them to consider the health of their children and future generations. It was an uphill battle, to be sure, especially with the older women, who just laughed at me. White rice has been a staple of their diet for decades. It’s the only really affordable food on these islands, where the minimum wage is US$2 an hour, and the average family has 10 members. But the younger generations — young parents and teenagers — seemed genuinely concerned, willing to listen and willing to try.

Unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than simple dietary choices. The local markets carry brown rice, but not in sufficient quantities, and not at reasonable prices. The country receives aid, but the politicians are dubious. For the most part my efforts seemed futile, and I ended the days feeling defeated and angry. What on earth was I doing here? What could I possibly do? It’s one thing to know that the third world exists. It’s another thing to enter and challenge it.

Long boat rides back and forth between the ship and the islands afforded me ample time to discuss my concerns with the other members of Pacific Partnership. I was not the only one who found the realities of these nations hard to cope with. But there was a consensus that our presence was of some immediate use. At the very least, people there saw that someone else in the world gave a crap about them.

What did I get out of it? An appreciation for life in the United States. Sure, it’s not perfect. But I will never again complain about food prices, or traffic, or crowds, or the weather. We’ve got it pretty damn good. Most of all I was happy to have met people who put aside their own lives to help those who can’t help themselves, and I’m honored to be among them.

Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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