Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are

Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are

Blog written by Carmen Torres Ledezma* and published by HiVOS © Photos and videos: Karlo M. Bermúdez / @karloemb International discourse has moved away from “we should feed the world” to “we should nourish the world” and “we should nourish the world in a way…

May 24, 2019 - Last update: February 10, 2023

Blog written by Carmen Torres Ledezma* and published by HiVOS
© Photos and videos: Karlo M. Bermúdez / @karloemb

International discourse has moved away from “we should feed the world” to “we should nourish the world” and “we should nourish the world in a way which is sustainable for the planet”. Perhaps we fall short in framing our struggle in these terms, because we forgot or omit what food really means to people.

To people, food means so much more than to be fed or nourished. Perhaps this is why we still haven’t managed to mobilise people to make the changes expected as regards food consumption, towards healthier and more sustainable diets. Food is pleasure, culture, passion, tradition, emotion, it is sharing, it is celebrating, it is to desire, it is to love. It is, in essence, “what we are”. That is why gastronomy and culinary movements, that bring all these other dimensions of food together, are key to achieving the desired changes in our eating habits in pursuit of healthier and more sustainable food systems.

We are walking along narrow streets packed with more than 200 shops, stalls and restaurants of local delicacies called sodas. We stop every so often among the wealth of meat, fish, tropical fruits, tubers, coffee and other local products prepared in situ to taste delicacies of the local cuisine such as chorreadas (corn pancakes), gallo pinto (beans and rice), ceviche (citrus marinated fish), guanabanas and passion fruit… We are in San José Central Market, Costa Rica, enjoying the Urban Epicurean Culinary Tour led by Alfredo Echeverría, one of the founders of the National Plan on Sustainable and Healthy Gastronomy in Costa Rica (PNGCSS) and head of the Epicurean Gastronomy Club.

Alfredo is – what we at Hivos call – a pioneer: a progressive citizen with big ideas, new solutions, high impact collaborations and a lot of guts. Through gastronomy, through various organisations and collaborations, such as, for example, the Costa Rican Gastronomy Foundation (FUCOGA), Alfredo is searching persistently for an innovative way to change our food environments in pursuit of food systems that are more inclusive, sustainable and healthy, that rescue Costa Rican culinary traditions and the diversity of its diet.

The largest market in the city, Central Market was established in 1880 and declared a site of cultural heritage because of its strong tradition and identity. Here, overwhelmed by the smells and flavours of the largest market in the city, we reflect, excited and optimistic about certain challenges presented by our food systems and ways of tackling them.

Markets, the places where food comes alive

In Latin America, the region with the highest rates of urbanisation in the world, markets and fairs play a key role in the food systems at city and regional level for the sale of local and national products, for the preservation of food cultural heritage and for the promotion of fair and inclusive trade through greater proximity of producers and consumers.

Markets and local fairs are not simply junctures between the country and the city. They are also hubs that promote the business fabric, the invigoration and development of local and regional economies. Whether they are institutionalised, formal, informal or permanent, their importance in local food systems go beyond the simple economic activity of selling food. Markets and the surrounding areas are social spaces where producers, tradespeople and consumers all go to chat and get together, as a matter of course, for leisure and pleasure.

For this reason, markets and fairs are privileged spaces for promoting inclusive, sustainable and healthy eating. Various civil society movements and gastronomy activists organise trips, workshops, talks, courses, events that use these spaces to “activate” a “conscious”, “responsible”, “healthy”, “autochthonous” way of eating in the city and regional spaces and so relight the fire of popular cuisine. This is the case with the Epicurean gastronomy club, that has 650 members and promotes activities that aim to revive the value attributed to typical Costa Rican food and popularise a sustainable and healthy, affordable, nutritious, diverse gastronomy that respects local traditions.

Traditional diets, imported diets, planetary diets, healthy diets, smart diets

Food systems today threaten both the health of people and of the planet. It is not enough to change the patterns of production and sale of food. We must promote change in consumer habits and an increase in demand for the most sustainable and healthy diets.

But… how sustainable and healthy are local and traditional diets? A good question.

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission report , a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal-based foods brings both health and environmental benefits. Approximately half the volume of a “planetary health” dish should be made up of vegetables and fruits and the other half of whole grains, sources of plant-based protein, unsaturated vegetable oils and (optionally) modest amounts of animal-based proteins.

The report calls for a “great food transformation”, with radical changes in our eating habits. This supposes not only doubling consumption of healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds, but also a more than 50% reduction in world consumption of less healthy foods such as added sugars and red meat (mainly reducing excessive consumption in the richest countries).

However, at national and local level, the transformation may not be so dramatic, or it may require a different lens. In Costa Rica, for example, we saw during the Epicurean gastronomic tour in the Central Market that the traditional Costa Rican diet includes a low percentage of animal protein and a significant proportion of corn, rice and beans – all plant-based products, which provide a combination of amino acids that complement each other to provide a high-quality source of plant-based protein. We also saw the huge variety of fruit, vegetables, tubers and grains available and consumed by the population. We, however, watched with concern the size of portions, the increased offer of sugary, processed and ultra-processed products, and remembered regretfully that, according to the last school census on height and weight in 2016, 34.6% of the national school population is overweight.

In Costa Rica, rescuing the diverse traditional diets and adapting them to urban environments and lifestyles is a path worth following. Here the importance of local markets and fairs, and pioneers like Alfredo, become apparent.

Costa Rica, a pioneer and pilot country in the Latin American region

Costa Rica is a small Latin American country that in recent years has attracted great interest from the international community, for implementing ambitious policies and programmes aimed at tackling their most urgent development problems in a short period of time. From the recent national decarbonisation plan 2018-2050, to the measures adopted to promote healthy eating habits and combat the obesity and excess weight epidemic in Costa Rican society, including a letter of commitment to tackle excess weight and obesity in Costa Rican children and adolescents , undersigned by 10 ministers, an executive decree and a presidential directive to promote healthy eating habits in the population.

We share this vision at Hivos, which is why we promote, participate and support various multi-actor initiatives that aim to make these commitments a reality. In Costa Rica there is valuable momentum in which people, together with motivated and progressive organisations, an ambitious and bold government, and a constellation of innovative actors from the private sector, converge. This creates an enabling environment in which to link all stakeholders, establish big impact collaborations and tackle these big challenges with passion, traction and success.

A specific example is the food-based dietary guidelines project, on which we are collaborating with the FAO, the Costa Rican Public Health Ministry and other stakeholders. Our objective is to involve civil society, establish a process which includes all sectors to ensure that they are more than just nutritional guidelines, that they also include environmental, cultural and social aspects and to co-design dissemination, information and communication mechanisms so that, through their appropriation, the guidelines can contribute to a real change in the population’s eating habits towards more sustainable and healthy diets.

Hivos is also collaborating with the Presidency and various civil society organisations to co-design and put in place a communication platform for eating behaviour change that, through pioneering, innovative and high impact methodologies, activities and ideas, promote more sustainable and healthy diets in different sectors of the population. We believe that, beyond disseminating nutritional and environmental information in academic spaces, social innovation has enormous potential of using new ideas to promote sustainable and healthy diets.

In both projects, gastronomic movements and pioneers have a very important role to play to achieve the desired changes. And, as SUN Movement’s Cordinator, Gerda Verburg, indicated, we believe that the example of Costa Rica can be used as a point of reference for the region, where we are also working together with local and pioneering partners.

The power of gastronomy

Currently it is still a challenge to make the most sustainable and healthy food options the most desirable, affordable and easy to choose. Making the recommendations from experts like those from the EAT Lancet report a reality in all the regions of the world requires detailed analysis of local food systems.

This is why we have organised an event within the framework of the EAT Food Forum in collaboration with the members of our global gastronomic movement: Nordic Food Policy Lab, WWF, Slow Food, IFAD and others. It will take place in Stockholm, Sweden, during June this year. The event will bring together the main leaders in the world of food and aims to drive progress, share knowledge and help coordinate action across different sectors and disciplines to adopt solutions that will transform the global food system.

During our event, the people who participate will be presented with diverse perspectives on a sustainable, inclusive and healthy cuisine as a powerful starting point towards food system change, making the most of food culture to promote climate-smart and environment-friendly diets. From the National Plan on Sustainable and Healthy Gastronomy in Costa Rica, which will be presented by Alfredo, to the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, passing through innovative initiatives relating to gastronomy in Bolivia, Kenya and Indonesia. Attendees will have the opportunity to meet pioneers who will share their ideas about how we can promote and popularise sustainable and healthy diets in different contexts.

This parallel event will offer concrete examples, practical recommendations and scalable solutions, including a global mapping of innovative initiatives related to inclusive, sustainable and healthy cuisine across the world that Hivos is developing with Nordic Food Policy Lab and other partners.

We hope you will join us at the EAT Forum to continue learning, debating and building inclusive, sustainable and healthy food systems.


* Carmen Torres Ledezma es Development Manager of Sustainable Food Programme at HiVOS Latin American and the Caribbean.



Agriculture Food Systems
Costa Rica
Civil society