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Caught between two worlds: How modern careers changed Palauan diet

Updated: Apr 7


By Raquel Bagnol


In earlier times, a Palauan family would sit down for their meal consisting of food they produced from their gardens. Women in the family cultivated the gardens and farm plots where they planted taro, tapioca and vegetables.

Palauan women took pride in the quality of their taro patches, whose quality was tied to their wealth and community status. The men went out to hunt and fish. Children helped their elders on the farm. Children had a different outlook then. They participated in sports and social activities.

Life was slow-paced and relaxing. Everyone lived a healthy lifestyle.

Today’s Palauan society is a far cry from that old bucolic life, which has been overtaken by the eight-hour grind in the modern workplace. The farm-to-table dining routine is being replaced by Western convenience. A family sharing a take-out dinner from the drive-thru, fast-food restaurants, or bento boxes bought from the local store down the street is now commonplace. The last 100 years have brought significant changes to Palau's dining scene, greatly influenced by the Japanese and American occupation.

The change in foodways for today’s population has led to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases due to overnutrition, according to authors Chad T. Morris, Allison Kellam, Emily Spangler, Rebecca A. Shannon and Raynold Mechol.


In a study titled “Caught Between Worlds: Assessing Generational Change in Palauan Foodways Post-Independence,” the authors highlighted the state of nutrition in Palau.

In 2015, the authors assessed the current state of Palauan nutrition with the Ministry of Education in Palau. They surveyed students about food choices at home and school and studied the challenges parents and teachers face to promote healthier lifestyles.

Palau had no recorded contact with the western world before the 1700s. After World War I, Japan took control of Palau. The Japanese, who introduced white rice to the Palauans, pushed the population to move to Koror so they could use the land as an agricultural outpost for their own people. When Koror became crowded, the space for gardening and farming shrank. The people could not produce their own food anymore, so they started to rely on imported food.

After World War II, processed foods such as Spam and other high-fat, calorie-dense products brought in by the American soldiers became staples in the Palauan diet. The traditional taro, fish and tapioca are now supplemented with canned fish, chips and cookies, hence spiking overnutrition in Palau.

When Palau became independent, the nation gained wider access to the global food market. The change in foodways contributed significantly to overnutrition and related diseases.

According to Morris and his co-authors, more than 90 percent of Palauans ate less than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day in 2016, and 45.5 percent of Palauan adults ate processed meats every day. Younger adults consumed processed meats at least twice a day. Sugary beverages such as sweetened lemon tea and canned coffee also became a health concern in Palau. The changes in foodways contributed to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases in the nation.

The shift to an urban lifestyle has further pulled the Palauans away from their old customs and traditions. Today’s generation is so focused on advancing their careers and earning money that there is very little time to cook meals, grow food, fish or hunt. More people work regular daytime jobs. They go home tired. It is more convenient to stop at the grocery for canned goods, pre-packed snacks, frozen food and microwaveable meals. Restaurants and drive-thru outlets have proliferated in Palau, hence dining out and picking up take-outs are labor-saving options.

The authors said Palauan parents expressed the desire to prepare traditional Palauan meals for their families, but time has become a luxury. Most of today’s Palauan women don’t work at the farms anymore. Preparing taro is very time-consuming. Taro patches take about nine months of hard work before they can be harvested and the crop requires long hours to cook. Taro is still a staple Palauan food, but more people now opt to go to their local vendors to buy cooked and ready-to-eat taro.

At school, parents are torn between wanting to feed their children healthy food and getting them to “fit in” with the trends. Some students eat taro and tapioca while some eat chips and other store-bought snacks in school. Those eating taro and tapioca feel left out. Several parents also just give their children money for school meals. As a result, children buy whatever they want.

Morris and co-authors cited one respondent who summed up the whole situation: "Everyone in Palau is caught between two worlds. People have to work to earn money to buy the food that’s killing them. If they don’t have money, they can’t go fishing or planting to produce food because they can’t buy fishing equipment or fertilizer."

 Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to


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