The Bitter Taste of Easter

There's a terrible irony that while we are getting fat on sugar, Ugandans are going hungry because of it. Leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, doesn't it?

The other Sunday I was on the sidelines at the Bath Half Marathon cheering on 60 runners raising money for Send a Cow. I was, and remain awestruck by their commitment to their sport and fundraising for us, but stand-up comedian, actor and writer Eddie Izzard has taken marathon running to a whole different level.

His remarkable 27 marathons in 27 days couldn't have come at a better time because his big message about his level of fitness throughout the Sport Relief challenge was refined sugar. He said getting himself off refined sugar has enabled him to lose weight and giving up sugar is exactly the message we are currently promoting through our Sweet Swap challenge - albeit for a month max and no marathons involved.

But unlike Eddie, who has made a lifestyle change to eradicate refined sugar from his diet, Send a Cow is highlighting the impact sugar is having on the lives of some of Uganda's poorest people. Because in Uganda, it's not so much a sugary treat for children and adults alike, but a way of sedating families from the hunger they experience because of sugar production.

Some parents resort to feeding their children with home-brewed vodka to quell their hunger pangs and stifle their desperate cries for food. Others routinely feed their families raw sugar cane just so their children have something to gnaw on and to fill their bellies with.

It's hard to believe that the sugar so many of us enjoy has such a high price, but in the Kamuli District of Eastern Uganda, we estimate 10,000 small holder farmers are actively involved in growing sugar cane on their small plots of land - usually under one acre.

It's a guaranteed crop with an established market of sugar refineries but the problem with sugar cane is that its takes 18 months to grow and mature. That's a very long time to expect a family to last without an income and by the time the crop is harvested and sold there isn't enough money left to feed and clothe the family for another 18 months.

So instead of growing their way out of poverty, families are trapped in a cycle of dependency, growing a familiar crop they know they will sell and suffering months of hardship to achieve it.

We know from experience that poor rural farmers need the confidence and knowledge to make change and that once they have those skills, their futures are secured not just today but for generations to come. That's why we have launched a project in Kamuli to help 200 families find a better way.

We aren't asking them to give up growing sugar cane completely but we are encouraging them to diversify what they grow so they can start making choices which will benefit their lives. We want them to set some land aside and help them to grow nourishing vegetables which will feed their families and give them a surplus to sell year-round.

By introducing sustainable farming techniques, we can help farmers break the cycle of dependency on the single crop of sugar and demonstrate to their neighbours the value of growing wider variety of food. Over time families grow stronger and healthier and there is enough money to clothe the children and send them to school.

So here we are at the time of our annual sugar-fest, our Easter celebrations, when some of us have been giving up chocolate and other sweet treats for Lent, and I am plunged into a dilemma. Do we all give up refined sugar forever, Eddie Izzard style, and deprive those Kamuli families of guaranteed cash? Or do we perpetuate the human cost of sugar production by continuing to indulge?

It's heart-breaking to know that the sweet treat we associate with happiness and pleasure is causing so much pain to those growing it. And of course obesity levels are rising across the developed world so we are causing pain here too. The UK alone spends around £10b a year on diabetes care and an estimated 2.6m people currently have type-two diabetes in England.

As a charity we have been having some fun with giving up sugar. We're challenging our supporters to take part in a sponsored sugar fast for 1-4 weeks and have created a sugar-free recipe book to help them on their way. But behind this light hearted approach, we can't forget the thousands of smallholder farmers trapped in a life of poverty by sugar cane farming. There's a terrible irony that while we are getting fat on sugar, Ugandans are going hungry because of it. Leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, doesn't it?


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