Today I want to talk about a subject close to my heart: Food and why millions of well-fed people are dying of hunger, today. See report here. Why do we eat what we eat? Ever asked yourself that question? Without thinking about weight loss. Why Burger King and not Chisanyama? Why Mcdonalds instead of Nandos? Why buy food at WoolWorths instead of cooking the food yourself? Why go to the Food Lovers’ market instead of the local farmer’s market or street vendors who sell fresh produce? What influences your choices? Is it the country you live in? Is it the car you drive? Where you live? Where you work? The work that you do? Where you went to school? Hygiene? Time? Social and economic status? What are the set of values which influence your decision making process when you go shopping for food or when you decide on a restaurant to eat at? Is taste the only deciding factor? Service? Money? Personal Preferences, Culture, Tradition, Politics, Comfort or Ease?
Do you ever think about it?
I started to think about these questions more deeply in the process of trying to understand how my mind works. I started to notice specific behavioural patterns induced by varying stages or degrees of hunger in my own life. When I started to pay attention to what hunger does to the physiology of the body, its biological functions – I started to see amazing connections between how those energy systems or energy in motion (emotions) influence how I felt, how those feelings influenced my thoughts, how those thoughts influenced my actions or behaviour which then produced certain outcomes or results. Food then was not simply just stuff I consumed to stay alive, but the kind of food I ate also influenced the quality of the life I led. The more I searched deeper and deeper I began to discover that what I eat, not only influences my health or what I look like, but most importantly how my thoughts are formed. Access to food influences how I think about myself and the world around me. The food I eat on a daily basis actually directly influences the quality and kinds of thoughts I think every day.
Can you imagine that?
I suppose we all know this. The choices you make when you are hungry are very different to those you make when you are full. The choices you make after you’ve eaten a large burger are different from the ones you make after eating a bowl of fresh greens, simply because the nutritional value is different. The fuel is different. The chemical digestive Process is different. It’s the difference between drinking water and having a shot of vodka. Not only is food essential for brain function but the type of food we eat can enhance or impair how our brain works, how we think, feel and behave.
So what’s wrong with Bread?
Paying attention to my body (biology) helped me to understand the intricacies of the global food system. While the question of how food systems work or how your plate of food influences labour and the economy is too complex to unravel in one simple blogpost, I thought we should at least start to think about how we acquire the food we eat and what it does to us our bodies and the world we must continue to live in once we‘ve eaten it.
Food like politics makes the world go round. Whole revolutions have been started by a lack of certain foods. So I decided to enlist the help of a dear friend Brittany Kesselman who is a food systems researcher and founder of Jozi(Un)cooked to help me understand how food systems work outside of my body and how those systems impact on my food choices and ultimately my perspective on life or the quality of my thoughts. Ms K can see all the way down the alphabet when it comes to food, so I thought I should ask once and for all what, if anything is wrong with bread (read food) and what I can do about it.
JediW: What’s wrong with bread?
BrittanyK: Many things are wrong with bread and nothing is wrong with bread. The current dehumanization of bread as the evil food responsible for everyone being overweight and unhealthy I think is a bit unfair to bread. But at the same time bread as we know it today – in the mainstream in the supermarkets is in some ways worthy of that characterization because it is made of highly processed, heavily sprayed with chemicals, industrially produced artificial ingredients that are designed to travel long distances and stay on the shelves for a long time and so they are incredibly unhealthy and are responsible for people being over-weight and under nourished.
This bread is nothing like the daily bread of the past.
JW: Are you suggesting that we do away with bread? People can hardly afford it as it is.
Bk: I’m suggesting that we radically overhaul the food system so that it doesn’t produce bread like that anymore. In fact the consumption of bread as a staple in this country (South Africa) by the majority of the population is only about a 50 or 60 year old phenomena. People didn’t eat bread but in the bad old days (Apartheid/colonial era) there were farmer co-ops they artificially lowered the price of bread and pushed it to become a staple for the underpaid labouring majority who hadn’t been previously eating bread and now when the government just raised the wheat tariff to protect wheat farmers in this country, people worried that it would increase the bread price, in fact only about 30 percent of the price of bread is related to the price of wheat. Which is odd because if you made bread properly, if you just make it and ate it, about 95 percent of your bread price would be based on wheat.
There’s marketing, transport, packaging, the price of bread is not reflective of the ingredients used to make bread but is reflective of all those other things. The costs are born out of this long distance food systems. If you had someone growing wheat nearby, if you had someone milling wheat nearby and baking bread nearby it wouldn’t have to cost so much.
JW: But there’s a bakery down the road here which bakes bread every day and bread there costs twice as much as the standard bread loaves found in mainstream supermarkets?
Their bread is pricey because the current food system favours mass production instead of small scale production. So people receive benefits like access to credit and other things from the government for being large which gives them an unfair advantage and that enables them to have very low prices. But they still have all of these other costs that they then add in that makes the prices go up. If you pay labour a fair price and you grow a quality ingredient then it’s also true that food shouldn’t be super cheap, cheap, cheap. Because farming very is hard work and producing food is hard work and so it does have costs and the costs in some ways are artificially low even though they seem to be too expensive for other people because everyone is unemployed. The reality is if you had the proper cost for food to reflect its actual value – good food – then you’d have to pay more for it. People would have to be paid fairly across the economic chain in order for them to afford good food. It takes cheap food to create cheap labour and none of those things should be cheap.
JW: I’m not sure that many people would want to think about what you’ve just said when deciding on what to eat for lunch?
BK: It’s a lot to think about. But for someone who is struggling to buy that loaf of bread might wish to be aware that it’s not their individual fault that they are struggling to buy that loaf of bread but it’s the system. The system that creates that bread is the very same system that leaves them unemployed or working on a job where they can still not afford to buy bread. And so at the moment good food costs more than it should but some of it is not that expensive. So a bag of lentils is not expensive but goes a long way in terms of calories and nutrients. A head of cabbage is not so expensive it goes a long way as well. So someone might need to keep buying that bread and fill up on calories right now but could perhaps mixed it in with more healthy items and then we need to start advocating for changing to the systems so that people can afford good food.
JW: Oh my god lentils, I think they’re so boring!
BK: Lentils are not boring, the entire Indian Sub-continent eats them every day and they taste delicious. I mean is mealie meal exciting food? A great deal of this country according to studies live on plain bread or mealie meal, most of the time. That’s not exciting food either, it’s what people can manage, so if you can manage something else that’s better for you… Lentils are not familiar and the fact is lentils are not indigenous to this region but other beans are and nobody is eating those anymore like Bambara beans? It’s not something you see, those are indigenous to South Africa, what happened to Bambara beans? Millet is indigenous to Africa, why aren’t we eating millet? The thing is these things can grow more cheaply, wheat is not indigenous to this region so growing wheat here sometimes involves acquiring more chemicals or more water or more costs compared to growing something more indigenous.
JW: Is paying less for bread the solution? #BreadPriceMustfall
BK:The fact that a small number of corporations – the oligopolies of the world own every stage of the food systems in this country from the fertilizers to the seeds, to the large still white-owned commercial farms to the few dealers and a few retailers, all of those oligopolies are making billions of rands in profit while people can’t afford to eat. And the point of the BreadPricesMustfall campaign is that it’s unfair, unjust if not criminal that they could be making billions, while people can’t afford to eat. It’s not as though they are selling the bread at cost, or close to at cost, they are making literally billions! And I would agree that if you treat food as a human right which is what it is according to the South African constitution other than a commodity then you don’t make it about profit you make it about a public good. But ultimately what we should pay less for is not chemical laden, nutrient poor white bread, we should pay less for good food.
JW: How do you define good food?
BK: Good food is nourishing. Not only to your body biologically but also to your spirit. Good food is food that was not produced through exploiting workers, it was not produced by destroying the planet, it was not produced with chemicals, and it is produced with love in traditional ways that then nourish your body and your community and your planet. And Ideally you will then sit down and enjoy that good food with good people around you, so that it’s actually an entire experience and not something you eat while driving your car or sitting at your desk at work.
JW: I’ve never consciously thought of food as a human right, like water. I’ve always thought that if I want food I must go out and work for it. I’ve never thought that my right to life equates to the right to food? Is that crazy?
BK: In this neoliberal world we’ve come to think of food as something you have to pay for, in many ways water has also become something that we pay for, land is something that we pay for and before we know it air will be something that we pay for. That’s the spread of neo-liberalism, the idea that everything falls under the market place. But I think we need to take certain key things back out of that market system or at least recognize that they are beyond the market system and food is definitely one of them. Because if you don’t have food you cannot enjoy a single other human right. There’s no point in having a right to vote, or a right to education if you don’t eat because, you’re dead.
JW: Are there healthy food systems in the world we could emulate? How can an individual affect change?
BK: It’s challenging because the oligopolistic industrial system is certainly the main one at the moment globally. To seek to imagine alternatives, sometimes it’s more imagining than seeing, but there are pockets of alternatives that have sprouted up all over the place. And are spreading and give us glimmers of hope and some examples like, in Cuba out of necessity when the Soviet Union fell no longer had support from the communist bloc , they had to make another plan because suddenly there was no cheap petrol coming in and cheap fertilizers, so they transformed the entire agricultural system.
In Chiapas, Mexico you see more of a solidarity economy, in Malawi to a more agro-ecological approach and also changing gender relations within the food system so that they can produce healthy food by involving both men and women in these tasks, so there are little pockets. You see people occupying land in Brazil, you see people saying no to genetically modified expensive seeds and chemicals opting to use agro-ecological approaches, you see people trying to save heirloom seeds and bring back traditional varieties instead of the few mono-cultures that people tend to grow now. So there are pockets were people are either fighting back or imagining new futures or going back to traditional ways which worked well before.
JW: Does buying Organic Food from Supermarkets help?
BK: Look if you’re buying organic from the shop, yes you’re buying a product that wasn’t sprayed with thousands of chemicals and already that’s an improvement. And you’re also sending a market signal through the retailers to the farmers that there is demand for this type of alternative way of production. But if you’re buying it from the supermarket from one of those few retailers which control the entire retail sector then you’re not exactly striking a blow to the entire economic system behind the food chains. So if you have the option of doing it, it is certainly worth doing, but buying organic won’t change the system.
JW: What more would we need to do?
BK: We need to find alternative means of sourcing our food, we need to get out of the supermarkets if we can and buy from small farmers who get such a small percentage of the price when we buy from supermarkets, but if you can skip the supermarket and the other middlemen and purchase your food directly from farmers we can both negotiate a fair price. We can also communicate directly with the farmers about what we want and the types of food they can grow, so it gives the producer and the consumer more control.
JW: But wouldn’t that be inconvenient?
BK:Maybe, but it has become inconvenient because our entire systems of living have changed. In many parts of the world both in the north and the south there are weekly if not daily famers markets, people go and buy fresh things and they buy them because they are good. Why don’t we have that?
JW: How effective are food gardens in changing the system?
BK:On the one hand they don’t have a big impact in terms of how much food they are able to produce. It’s not likely that the city will be able to feed itself ever. But on the other hand they have a very big impact first because they reconnect people to their food. Remember there are children who don’t even know where their food comes from or that a vegetable grows from the ground and that’s extraordinary. When people in the community are growing different food they can start to trade it, they can start to share it and they begin to step out of the main economy as well. We can re-establish those community bonds over food which the supermarket takes away from us.
JW: Isn’t that like going backwards? Isn’t that old and boring, haven’t we evolved from that?
I think the modernist notion of progress is something that is questionable. It’s only the neoliberalist system that has convinced us that living an individualistic, career cantered life is of value. Many of the values that may have been lost along the way are certainly worth reviving and preserving.
JW: But Why though? I think some people might aspire to one day being able to afford Burger King…
Brittany K: And once they are able to afford Burger King they will find that they are not any happier! Once they can afford Burger KING and KFC they will still not be any happier. But they will have a higher chance of getting a heart attack or a stroke or Diabetes of Hypertension. The singular focus on wealth as the path to happiness is ridiculous, because it minimizes all of our other elements as human beings and we’re multidimensional creatures if we put all our focus on one dimension we will never be happy. It’s not as if there is a lower incidents of depression amongst the wealthy. That’s just strictly not true.
JW: So would baking your own bread be a solution to the current nutrient deficient bread sold at supermarkets?
BK:Your questions don’t have easy answers. In some ways yes, of course it would. Baking bread is extremely therapeutic you knead the bread and it’s like giving yourself a massage! But if you have to buy the mainstream bread of that flour to make that bread, it’s not significantly radical and in our rushed time pressed world people will find that they don’t have time to bake bread or don’t want to make time to bake bread. But if you start to break bread, if you find it therapeutic then you might look for better alternatives to the flour, find someone who is producing or selling such a thing and in another way then you’re getting out of the main stream and finding another way and you might find yourself baking more bread and sharing it with your neighbours. And then yes the might be a change.
JW: So the problem with bread is the flour?
BK:The problem with bread is the ten things I’ve said before. Certainly, flour is sprayed with chemicals and refined to no longer resemble the wheat that it once was in any way shape or form, our bodies don’t even recognize that it’s a food by the time it get into our system. There’s nothing so wrong with Wheat per se, human beings have consumed wheat for about ten thousand years but by the time it becomes that white flour in the supermarket it’s not food anymore.
JW: So are you saying that there’s not nutritional value whatsoever in the bread we buy at super markets even though they say it’s got added vitamins?
BK: Raj Patel gives an amazing talk about poverty and added vitamins. Taking all of the nutrients out of an ingredient that originally had them because it looks better and lasts longer better and then pumping all the vitamins at the end is the ultimate capitalist way to approach food. Whereas using the fresh ingredient in its natural state with its original nutrients and then consuming it fairly quickly meaning there’s no shipping or transportation costs would be a better approach. But multinationals don’t benefit from that.
JW: So if I stopped buying from them would that change anything?
BK:Having worker owned co-operatives is certainly a solution. Places like Brazil and Argentina they have a lot of worker own co-operatives which tend to have more than just a profit motive, they have other social objectives to their businesses and they of course would want to make enough money to benefit those who participate from it but they care about their communities as well. Because they understand that they are embedded in those communities. So I cannot just say walk away from your job to those people who need that job but those who are in a position to look into alternatives and eventually create jobs from them should certainly do so.
Brittany Kesselman is a food systems researcher and founder of JoziUncooked, Johannesburg’s first raw food company. You can visit her website at JoziUncooked.com
*pictured: Bread-seller turned model, Olajumoke. credit: cnn.