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Is our food too cheap?

Chris Saliba is one of Webdiary’s active citizen journalists, having contributed numerous articles and book reviews over past years. His Webdiary archive is here, and he also has his own website 

Is our food too cheap?

By Chris Saliba

Not so long ago I was sitting out the front of the Vic Market food court when I saw a healthy-looking young man hovering over one of the bins. I presumed he must be one of the cleaners, until I noticed he was lifting half eaten foodstuffs out of the bin and assembling them neatly on a paper napkin.

It was one of those surreal moments where you can’t believe your eyes. I gulped. Was he going to eat this stuff?

Gingerly folding up his napkin, the young man took his place amongst the lunch time crowd.

It was a moment of unspoken embarrassment where we regular eaters tried to keep up appearances, while secretly reeling in horror.

After having digested the original shock, however, I don’t know if it was more disturbing that someone would so brazenly eat out of a bin, or the fact that so much edible food was being thrown out.

Intrigued, I kept my eye on that bin, and was amazed to see an endless stream of food dumped as a matter of course.

Why do we throw out so much food? According to environmental group Planet Ark, we buy and then bin around 3 million tonnes of food a year. That’s just the food we personally throw out.

The National Farmers Federation says that up to $700 million worth of produce has been left to rot due to labour shortages. The $17 per hour that the industry pays to pick fruit is clearly not thought worth the effort. No wonder that hospitality wages are falling, while mining wages have surged to around $50 per hour, or $100,000 per year. Coal may be a greater energy source than apples and oranges, but we still have to eat.

I could console myself with my own frugality and distaste for wasting food, but I’d be deluding myself. I’m guilty of demanding that bananas be transported from the North all year round, and see fit to buy tinned tomatoes flown in from Italy. These items should be more properly described as petro-foods.

It’s been estimated that the average Australian basket of food travels around 70,000 miles. That doesn’t include the energy costs in the actual food’s production – from manufacturing to the use of pesticides and fertilizers. For example, it takes 2,200 calories of hydrocarbon energy to produce a can of soft drink containing 200 calories. No wonder we need to extract so much energy out of the ground. How would we feed ourselves otherwise?

While it would be interesting to add ‘food miles’ to our information labelling, imagine if we could see other hidden costs itemised.

Consider chocolate and the child labour used to harvest cocoa beans on African plantations. World Vision CEO Tim Costello says it would cost the Australian chocolate industry approximately $12 million per year to clean up the supply chain, or around 1 percent added to every chocolate bar.

Or think how much we pay in food advertising, $259 million last financial year. So divorced have we become from the plants and animals that make up our diet, that we need cartoon characters and advertising jingles to persuade us to eat.

In the British series, Eataholics, adult Brits with eating disorders recoil in horror at the sight of fresh vegetables, calling them ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting’. Some gag when trying to eat tiny slices of fruit that you’d usually prepare for a small child. No wonder: our tastebuds have been corrupted over the years by foods adulterated with artificial flavours concocted in chemistry labs. Real food comes as a shock.

When you take this strange attitude to nature, and add it to a demand for cheap food, perhaps it’s inevitable that you get something like Mad-Cow Disease. Feeding offal (unusable parts of dead animals) to cows seemed a good cost cutting measure to the British beef industry. Never mind that cows are designed to eat grass. This cost saving measure resulted in more than four million cattle being destroyed, estimated costs of $7 billion and transmission to at least 18 countries. It begs the question, can we afford cheap food if the results are so dire?

Oscar Wilde famously described a cynic as someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Our market obsessed economy only looks at prices, demanding that they be kept as low as possible, while skewering how we value food.

You could even argue that the capitalist model for food, with its goal of ever expanding consumption, is at odds with the human health requirements of moderation and restraint.

Too much we take food for granted, have little to no knowledge of its provenance, and presume that it will keep growing on supermarket shelves forever. Hidden costs, called 'externalities' in business jargon, don't get a look in. Such veiled costs are really price distortions.

I’ve seen that urban forager on several other occasions picking up a free lunch. I wouldn’t recommend bin foraging, but that young chap looks fit enough. Most people would probably surmise he’s somehow unhinged, but I think there may be a considerable amount of method in the madness.


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Real savings

Why eat? - it only ruins your appetite.

Fifty bucks at the supermarket

Let's see..

A loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter, margarine (Black'n'Gold), two teethbrush, jar of crap coffee, two litres milk,  a pack of parmesan (what the hell is going on with the price of cheese?), four light bulbs, box of cat food (no cats inside.. false advertising!), box of washing powder.

That's fifty bucks in two little plastic bags.

I;ll pull out some stats on the movement of consumers from name brands to generics later, but I know the movement is having impact.  I recently recorded some music for a pasta sauce ad (hit the cutting room floor, but oh well I still get paid) that was thematically centred on guilt-tripping parents into keeping on providing kids with the labels to which they've become accustomed.  As a fifteen second ad (damn your eyes, San Remo, for spurning me so ;) you will probably hear it, and others like it, over and over and over.

At the moment people aren't cutting back, but are obviously prepared to sacrifice quality (mind you, my cupboards are half-full of generics) to maintain abundance. 

The next step will be cost cutting.   The next.. chooks and a veggie garden.

In short, Chris, the fact that this level of consumer shift is occurring suggests that household budgeting s aren't going as far as would be preferred.

$7.20 for a pack of B'n'G shreeded cheddar?  Grate!

Humane Tonkin: box of cat

Humane Tonkin: box of cat food (no cats inside.. false advertising!)

I suppose you think that's funny.   Come up and see me some time; it will be a gun in my pocket.

Snappy Tom and other cat food recipes

Pistol your pocket, Claude? With your medical record, could there be anything else?

I hope you enjoy this page I did.

And from another

This recipe for "Roast Ca:t as It Should Be Prepared"" is from Ruperto de Nola, Libro de Cozina, 1529: Take a cat that should be plump: and cut its throat, and once it is dead cut off its head, and throw it away for this is not to be eaten; for it is said that he who eats the brains will lose his own sense and judgement. Then skin it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well; and then wrap it in a clean linen cloth and bury it in the earth where it should remain for a day and a night; then take it out and put it on a spit; and roast it over the fire, and when beginning to roast, baste it with good garlic and oil, and when you are finished basting it, beat it well with a green branch; and this should be done until it is well roasted, basting and beating; and when it is roasted carve it as if it were rabbit or kid and put it on a large plate; and take the garlic with oil mixed with good broth so that it is coarse, and pour it over the cat and you can eat it for it is a good dish.

And from another:

The book is 'Z kuchyne stareho Presporka' but unfortunately it's in Slovak only. It's a collection of original hand-written recipes passed from mother to daughter in 19th century, having a nice pittoresque atmosphere. Here goes my translation of the mentioned one: DACHHAZ (ROOF RABBIT) I've gave some old clothes to Ezerczaky Palne and she in turn brought me a skinned tomcat. When I've tested her ouvre I've decided that I can offer it for a dinner to Mittelhausers, who came for visit that evening. They've liked it very much and asked for a recipe. Even now they prepare "poacher's rabbit" every now and then. Skin and gut a cat. Clean it thoroughly and leave it in heavily salted water whole night to get rid of uncommon smells. On the next day cut it into 6 pieces, dry it, coat it in flour mixed with dried parsley greens, thyme and mint. Use teaspoon of each of thyme and mint, two teaspoons of parsley. Brush a roasting pan with butter, put the pieces of God's creature inside a cover it with 3 onions, cut into chunks or rounds. Clean and wash 0.3 L glass of fresh mushrooms. Cut it into somewhat thicker strips. Make a layer of them over the onion, salt it a bit and sprinkle it using one teaspoon of tarragon vinegar. Peel 1 kg of potatoes, wash them and cut them into rounds half a centimeter thick. Put them over the mushroom in an even manner and salt it slightly. Cover the potatoes with 2-3 millimeter thick strips of smoked bacon (0.1 kg should do). Sprinkle it all with another teaspoon of tarragon vinegar. You can use common vinegar at worst. Put the pan into oven and roast the tomcat. Lower the heat after 15 minutes, cover the dish with another roasting pan and roast it slowly for about 2 hours. To keep the meat tender, pour 0.1 L of whipping cream over it 1/2 hour before it's ready and continue to cook it uncovered so that bacon turns golden and crispy.

Comments:1. Term 'mushroom' is locally used for wild forest mushroom rather then champignons.2. Smoked bacon is made by smoking - no boiling is involved. That gives the bacon more intense smoky flavour.

You may be as tough as you talk, Claude, but with the right seasoning, you could be quite helpful to a family's budget. You've heard those jokes about Finger Lickin' Kitten?

Does your pub have a bistro?

Inhumane Tonkin, I suppose you lay the cat biscuits you bought in a trail leading into your kitchen to attract unsuspecting moggies into catnaps to be slaughtered or held in Fritzl cells (it is Adelaide after all) until you have fattened them up sufficiently.

I have a few humane recepies myself but I prefer them raw after a few days decomposition.

As a persian/siamese cross myself, I'm now very cross.   What's the catfare to  Adelaide?    Do you have children?   Fat and Rude was once quoting from Titus Andronicaus or something like that.   Pie recepie I think. 

Roof Rabbit

Claude, with the number of factory ferals (who have defeated my poor Merlin into becoming agoraphobic, and the size of the buggers, we could be the feline equivalent of Sweeney Todd and have "organically grown" supplies for years. The true art of chefdom is creating cuisine from the surrounding habitat, n'est-ce puss?

Cat fare to Adelaide's not too dear, and we'd have you round for dinner anytime. Care to try the "Beef and Guinness Pie" ?

Before the rest of my family read this, and I end up on the menu myself (and a big hello to the health inspectors) I will attempt to segue out of the corner I'm painting myself into by reiterating that the time may soon come when you are regarded as cheap and nutritious.

The magic of Webdiary

One simply never knows where one of these threads might go next does one?

I'm home everrry evening!

"Come up and see me sometime"  Pray tell, Malcolm, (just between you and me) was Claude once owned by that grand old dame, Mae West?

It would explain a lot!

Two fing-er-s

Kathy Farrelly, I think in a previous life (he seems to have about a million of them) Claude is more likely to have been owned by W.C. Fields.   After all, he is neither a dog or a small children.

One doesn't, MBD

You'll never see pussy on the menu at the Green Dragon.. 

Ah Richard

Ah Richard.  As Mrs Slocombe would say:

"They're not having my pussy. And I am unanimous in that!"

Not going there, Kathy...

... since I can't think of a response clean enough to publish ;)

Still, Malcolm's right... so many tangents...

Grandfather survived the Great Depression as a rabbit-oh. I realise now, too late, that there are so many things I'd like to ask him.

I know we seem a long way from Chris's initial thrust, but we're not, really. It will be interesting to see if eating habits change much due to the financial downturn.

Thank you m'dear, for leaving me to go to bed with thoughts of Mrs Slocombe in my head, Time I got myself a new girlfriend... this time round perhaps one that knows that peas come from pods; I mean no disrespect, as it's amazing how many people under thirty haven't seen peas come from anything but a can or a plastic bag. At times I wonder how many city kids know that milk comes from cows.

Speaking of KFC, which we weren't ... a two piece lunchbox (with the chips and cola) is now around eight dollars and seventy cents. And Chris is worried that food's too cheap?

The value of Pie

Could you do cider and long pork pie Inhumane Tonkin? Much yummier than beef and, in its own way, more of a challenge. In Adelaide, I understand you keep your supplies in barrels. Certainly is a habit. Are there many Nuns in Adelaide, anyway? Oh, in Adelaide, it isn't only the Nuns who wear habits is it? Fat and Rude has mentioned the Green Dragon.

And who's this Merkin?

Never roofed a rabbit - I've had The Operation. Health Inspectors check your kitty litter do they?

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