Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail is never far from controversial policies. He has banned karaoke bars and obliged people to eat using their right hands.
The twice-elected mayor last month launched another campaign, much to the dismay of food vendors at Depok City Hall, called “One Day No Rice.”
“I have several reasons to back this campaign. Apart from the health aspects, this is also about food security,” he said.
Since Feb. 14, food vendors at the Depok administration food court have been banned from serving rice on Tuesdays in a bid to support the campaign.
Canteens and restaurants in the area complain that their profits are now down by half on Tuesdays.
During his tenure, Nur Mahmudi has issued infamous policies including obliging civil servants to design equipment to compost organic refuse, prohibiting the activities of the minority Ahmadiyah sect in Depok and as forbidding the sale of alcoholic drinks in hotels, cafes and karaoke bars.
University of Indonesia political analyst Ibramsyah said Nur Mahmudi’s campaigns infringed on individual privacy.
“It is up to individuals which hand they use and if they want to eat rice,” Ibramsyah said. “They are capable of making those decisions themselves.”
But when the president started to call for better food diversification and security, Nur Mahmudi said he felt he had to take it one step further.
“I stopped eating rice seven months ago,” he said. “Eighty percent of the average Indonesian diet is carbohydrates, of which more than 70 percent comes from rice.”
He cited 1954 figures from the Agriculture Ministry showing that at the time, only 53 percent of Indonesians depended on rice. By 2010, that number had risen to as much as 95 percent.
“The perception had become that if you want to eat, then you have to eat rice. Cassava, sago and tubers are just snacks,” he said.
Nur Mahmudi said his administration was working with universities to find and promote alternatives to rice.
“Each Indonesian on average consumes 139 kilograms of rice a year,” Nur Mahmudi said. “We can create new opportunities if we are willing to spend one day not eating rice.”
In Japan, the per capita consumption of rice is 60 kilograms per year, while in Malaysia it’s 63 kilograms and in China it’s 100 kilograms. Experts say the ideal amount is 60 kilograms.
Nur Mahmudi predicted that the Depok program could save 4.6 million tons of rice per year.
“There is no need to import rice when we can easily substitute other products,” he said.
A 2006 World Food Program survey on 341 districts and cities in 30 provinces in Indonesia found that people in half of the areas consumed fewer than 1,700 calories a day, well below the international standard of 2,100 for an average adult.
In addition, up to 70 percent of the country’s women and children are anemic, according to a 2004 Unicef study.
The problem is not so much a lack of food, but a lack of variety. Poor people tend to substitute protein-rich foods such as meat and eggs with rice.
Last year, Oxfam also issued a warning to the country for its high dependency on rice, given the effects of climate change and the increasing price of rice.
Haryono, the head of research at the Agriculture Ministry, supports the mayor’s campaign.
“Indonesia has a large biodiversity, including in food sources. There are health benefits to consuming many types of food,” he said.
He added that the “One Day No Rice” campaign should not be difficult to roll out because non-rice carbohydrate sources were widely available.
“I believe educating people on the alternatives is important and that the campaign should be done gradually and become a national program,” he said.
Haryono said the ministry was conducting a food diversification program based on local natural resources.
“There are local species that are cheaper to produce with high nutritional content such as the moringa leaf,” he said.
Haryono believes households should also take part in food security programs by cultivating their own food, especially those native to their area.
Titi Sekar Indah, a nutritionist at Jakarta’s Gatot Subroto Army Hospital, said rice was one of the best sources of carbohydrates.
“Cassava and tubers can cause indigestion and some people are also allergic to whey. Rice is the best because it is easily digested and absorbed by the body,” she said.
However, Titi said, rice in the market today is highly processed and polished.
“The husks are completely stripped away and the color is exceptionally white. The best rice is brown rice,” she added. “But it is wrong to think that you can never be full if you don’t eat rice.”
Nutritionist Yulia Rima, on the other hand, believes that aside from empowering food diversification, the campaign should also introduce the concept of balanced consumption.
“Practiced on a daily basis, people will not only consume a variety of nutrients, but also in balanced amounts,” she said.
Nur Mahmudi himself said the “One Day No Rice” campaign was not meant to punish people, but to educate them.
“I want people to look for creative alternatives to rice and to prove to themselves that it is OK to skip rice,” he said. “People also have to see that it benefits themselves as well as the country.”
Like his “eat and drink with your right hand” campaign, Nur Mahmudi says his latest campaign is part of his drive to “develop character.”