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Al Garrido and his family learn about Spam history during their visit to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota.
Al Garrido/ For PDN

Editor’s Note: The invasion, occupation and liberation of Guam had a lasting effect on the island’s people, government and institutions. Each week leading up to the 75th anniversary of Guam’s liberation, the Pacific Daily News will examine how the events of 1941-1944 continue to affect life today. We’ll share stories from survivors, family members and historians. Do you know a person we should profile, or do you have a family story you’d like others to know about? Is there a topic we should address? Share your suggestions with us at ‪news@guampdn.com.

Spam, corned beef and other popularly consumed canned foods are remnants of World War II that continue to have a lasting impact on the island, according to historians and nutritionists.

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Introduced as an emergency food source in a time of scarcity and devastation, CHamoru families once relied on the food source for sustenance while rebuilding their lives. Seventy-five years later, canned foods remain, but the consequences of generational consumption on health and economy may be at a boiling point.

Spam, the premier luncheon meat, was created in 1937 as an affordable food source marketed toward working-class households looking to stretch their budgets. Spam emerged in as a food source for U.S. Army personnel who needed to maintain high calorie counts during wartime conditions—and that’s where it should have stayed, according to Jessica Nangauta, a farmer, mother of three and food sovereignty advocate.

“Spam was only ever meant to be an emergency food source. It’s not something anyone is supposed to be eating long-term,” Nangauta said. “But growing up on Guam, practically everyone has, at some point, had Spam for breakfast with rice and eggs.”

A single 2-ounce serving of Spam contains about 180 calories, 16 grams of fat, 40 milligrams of cholesterol and 790 milligrams of sodium, according to the Hormel Foods website.

But virtually wherever U.S. forces went, Spam followed — and in places across the world once ravaged by war, like South Korea, Okinawa and Guam to name a few, the luncheon meat has a presence in pop culture, pantry shelves and public health statistics.

Spam on Guam

U.S. forces bombed Guam for days in the recapture of the island, and in doing so devastated the land, much of which was either dense jungle or arable farmland, according to Guam Preservation Trust board member and historian Dave Lotz.

Adding to the destruction was the fact that, while CHamoru families sought to rebuild their lives after the war, U.S. officials scrambled to turn as much as two-thirds of the island into military installations. In the process, entire villages were displaced and the capacity for once self-sustaining family groups to live off the land was drastically reduced.

“Guam’s pre-war landscape was predominantly agricultural and undeveloped,” Lotz said. “The military use of the land for bases was the primary factor of losing agricultural land and a change to canned goods, along with CHamorus being refugees on their own island.”

Spam and the CHamoru experience

CHamoru poet Craig Santos Perez has won 14 awards throughout his career for his portrayals of his experiences as an indigenous person and commentary on social and political issues.

In 2010 Perez wrote “Spam’s carbon footprint [sic],” in which he expresses at great length his love for the canned food.

“Spam has a place not only in the stomachs of Guam’s people, but in our hearts as well. Here Spam is considered a gourmet luxury and is often presented as a gift at birthdays, weddings, and funerals,” Perez wrote. “Hormel even made a Hot and Spicy Spam especially formulated for Guam with Tabasco already added to it!”

And yet, in other line Perez writes, “The end result can be found in the newspaper’s obituary pages. In 2004, Public Health reported that heart disease was the leading cause of death on Guam, representing 33.7% of deaths.”

Commenting from his residence in Hawaii earlier this month, the University of Hawaii Manoa faculty member shared his perspectives on Spam.

“SPAM is an invasive settler food and a weapon of mass consumption. The destruction it has caused to our diets and physical health is yet another negative impact of global American militarism,” Perez said. “Sadly, nearly every CHamoru, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander family (including my own) has been affected by settler foods and gastro-colonialism. The rates of diabetes and obesity are rising across the Pacific faster than the sea levels.”

According to the Department of Public Health and Social Services, the youngest person on Guam with type-II diabetes—a degenerative disease that normally afflicts persons in their 40s—is 5 years old; and rates of its occurrence among minors are steadily increasing.

Outreach efforts this past year have focused on diabetes prevention for Guam’s youth, and for good reason. Thirty percent of high school students on Guam are considered obese, followed by 20 percent among middle school students — among adults, that figure is at 64 percent.

“We’re now seeing 20-year-olds in dialysis, and health complications stemming from diabetes are happening at an earlier age,” said Patrick Luces, a program coordinator with the Health Department.

Luces said canned foods and a lack of physical activity were the causes of the island’s health crisis and encourages residents to make healthier food choices. But for the majority of island residents, particularly CHamorus and other Pacific Islander communities, this may not be so simple as the disease is mostly prevalent among lower-income residents with fewer food options.

“We’ve been forced into a state of reliance on canned foods, and our resources have been stripped away,” Nangauta said. “Now we’re in a situation where our people are sick. This is not freedom.”

According to the official Spam website, Guam’s appetite for the canned product is “humongous,” with an average consumption of about 16 cans per person. Several organizations including Time and Food Network report that this is the world’s highest consumption of Spam per capita. 

A way forward

As the number of dialysis centers on Guam grow to staggering numbers for the island’s population of about 160,000, it’s obvious something must be done at multiple levels to address rates of non-communicable diseases related to consumption of processed foods, like Spam.

“Physically, diabetes can have a ripple effect on the rest of your health. It can lead to heart disease, strokes, arthritis,” he said. “But it also has a domino effect on the economy. In 2017, governments spent $6 million on dialysis services on Guam alone. In twenty years, half of our workforce could be wiped out because of diseases stemming from diabetes. As it stands right now, doctors are already performing one amputation each day.”

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Regional data indicates deaths from heart disease occur between the ages of 35 and 65 for some Pacific Islander communities, resulting in generations of broken homes, according to Radio NZ coverage.

Apart from her work as a farm manager at the University of Guam Triton Farm, Nangauta takes to the soil in her personal life to feed her three children.

“Our community has suffered greatly because of emergency foods, and we need to reconnect the community back to the ways of the land,” Nangauta said. “Our children need to know where their food comes from to make healthier choices. Spam may have been introduced to our culture. But culture is constantly changing; and we can change too.”

The UOG Triton Farm offers a number of community programs to help persons learn about natural farming. For more information, contact Nangauta at 686-6980.

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