Remarks for Memorial Service for Lois Englberger
Peter A. Prahar — Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America
October 7, 2011 — Governor’s Conference Room, Pohnpei State Administrative Office Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
Lois’s colleagues in the Island Food Community; Let’s Go Local Supporters; Government leaders and Traditional Leaders here today.
Let me begin with a bold statement: Lois did more to promote local agriculture, improved diets, and healthy lifestyles than any other person in the history of the entire Micronesian region.
Her life’s work, her life’s mission – which I’m sure the Island Food Community and others will continue – is so incredibly important. Her life’s work, her life’s mission was no less than a life and death struggle to save the people of the Pacific from an ongoing health catastrophe, a calamity brought on by an epidemic of what are the so-called “life-style” non-communicable diseases: diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease.
A study published in 2002 – ten years ago – reported that the prevalence rate of hypertension here in Pohnpei among adults was 21 percent and for diabetes 32 percent. Some 60 percent of adult men and 53 percent of adult women had three or more risk factors for non-communicable diseases. This study was conducted ten years ago. I think there is universal agreement that these distressing numbers have steadily become more enormously elevated.
The word “catastrophe” – usually applied to natural disasters like typhoons, tsunami, and earthquakes – is not too strong. It is a humanitarian catastrophe, of course. Eight out of ten deaths in the FSM are attributed to non-communicable diseases. We can all think of a number of people – some close to us - who have died decades prematurely as a result of these diseases. And it has become a financial catastrophe as well, as the cost of treating patients with these diseases is bankrupting health and national budgets.
We can trace these lifestyle diseases directly to the consumption of large amounts of saturated fat, salt, and refined carbohydrates. All these are found in imported canned goods and rice. All are found in extraordinary amounts in “junk foods” like soda pop, ramen, donuts, and potato chips.
To call these simply non-communicable diseases is to do a great injustice to Lois and her crusade. Let’s be honest and call them what they really are—not NCD’s, but rather DOC’s, “diseases of choice.”
The Island Food Community of Pohnpei, which Lois founded with her Pohnpeian colleagues in 2004, has been leading the fight – person by person, community by community - against these so-called “lifestyle” diseases.
Lois recognized that prevention is the only effective strategy to combat these life-style diseases-of-choice and to improve the health of the Micronesian people. She recognized that these diseases are caused by poor dietary and sedentary lifestyle choices and that they can only be combated with better dietary choices and better activity decisions. Lois’s genius was in recognizing that these better lifestyle choices were here at hand in the native foods of these islands, in a diet that was common and accepted and practiced daily as recently as only 60 years ago.
Lois’s special genius – what really set her apart – was her vision, her drive, her determination to take her scientific understanding to the community. She was the impetus behind the “Go Local” movement and the “CHEEF” benefits campaign to promote local foods: culture, health, environment, economy, and food security. She preached her gospel of growing and eating local food and empowering local farmers and families throughout Micronesia to control their own economies and diets. She traveled and lectured extensively to promote this message at international conferences, expos and events in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America.
It is no exaggeration to say that Lois dedicated her life to saving the lives of all of the people of Micronesia. Her energy and dedication left a lasting impression on everyone she met.
I remember the last time I saw Lois. My wife and I were attending a ceremony sponsored by the Pohnpei State Library during which school children received awards for essays they had written. Lois was obviously very, very ill. But when she stood up and spoke to the group her energy and dedication to spreading the message encapsulated in the CHEEF campaign came shining through, shining through her illness, shining through her obvious exhaustion.
I didn’t have a speaking role at that event, but if I had had one, I would have said something like this to the children gathered in the library on that evening:
Sometimes in life, if you are very lucky, you get to meet a hero. Sometimes the hero has done something valiant in battle. But sometimes a hero is someone who has the vision and tenacity and drive and courage to try to accomplish something so very important, something so very right, something so very difficult that most people think it impossible. I got to meet a hero like that once in Cape Town, South Africa: Nelson Mandela. And I think we see another hero like that here this evening: Lois Englberger. Lois is not deterred by the generally held opinion that it is impossible to educate people about the importance of food and all it entails. She knows that what she is doing is absolutely and critically essential, so very important to every one of our lives. She does not win every battle, and the war is still not won, either, not by any means. But Lois gets out there every day; uses every opportunity she can find; and puts every bit of her imagination, and intelligence, and drive to get her message – her incredibly important message – to you and to others.
That’s what I would have told those children. I wish I had.
Lois’s presence will be sorely missed by all of her friends and colleagues throughout the islands, but I am confident that her legacy will live on in the work of the Island Food Community and its converts.
My wife, Amy, and I are among their number. In the past nearly two years, we have proudly served over 2,000 guests fresh, healthy, organic fruits and vegetables grown in Amy’s garden at the Residence.
But in continuing Lois’s work, I’m not going to let the government leaders here today off the hook. Island Food Community and other wonderful community-based efforts cannot do the job alone. They need your support.
And, as I have done before, I ask you – for the sake of your children and your communities’ futures – to get junk foods out of the schools and out of the students’ mouths. Ban these foods from the school’s cafeteria. Ban these foods from the teachers’ lunchroom. Ban them from the entire school. You don’t allow children to smoke at school. You don’t allow children to drink alcohol at school. Why should you let them eat foods that are, in all honesty, just as great a threat to their health? Why should you let them develop dietary habits that will lead to health problems and premature death as surely as – and sometimes faster than - abuse of alcohol or tobacco? Why should you engrain in them poor health habits and condemn them to a future ridden with diseases of choice?
I say to this island’s elected leaders, public officials, and other responsible adults: Use the school and use your remembrance of this sad but memorable day to send a message, one that will resonate throughout each and every one of your communities, each and every one of your homes. Use your schools to make a healthy diet a lifetime habit. Use the example of your schools to leverage and legitimize comprehensive and mainstreamed wellness programs and the CHEEF campaign at all levels of instruction. Use the school to teach your children to respect themselves and their culture by taking care of their bodies with nutritious food indigenous to this island, and to exercise regularly.
Lois has passed away. But let’s not let death claim her determination. Let’s not let death claim her imagination. Let’s not let death claim her message. Let’s not let her death claim her mission. Let’s not let death dim her crusade.
Her determination, her imagination, her message, her mission, and her crusade are now our responsibility to carry on.
Let’s Go Local, and Let’s Stay Local.