The recent furore over the discovery of horsemeat in food labelled ‘beef’ in Europe has obviously highlighted several issues with the modern foodchain, from how we treat animals we’re going to eat, to where we source those animals, to what other unknown substances might be present in these kinds of meals. It’s fair to say that there have been some smug vegetarians around the place lately.
A predictable outcome of this is a call for people to eat more whole foods and to source those foods locally. Buying burgers from a fast food chain, or frozen ready-meals from a supermarket means we’re removing ourselves from our link to the food itself. When you have the opportunity to buy directly from the supplier, you can discuss with him or her what you want the meat for, and give feedback on the quality the next time you visit. Sure, if you buy a frozen meal and it’s not up to standard, you can talk to the manager of the store and you might receive your money back, and an apology. But it’s unlikely to set real change in motion, especially if the person of the person who’s slaughtering the meat (or preparing the vegetables, for that matter) is several thousand kilometres away. So it does make sense to try and buy food from the people who grow it, or at least to try and close the gap as much as possible between producer and consumer.
Therefore, it’s argued, in an ideal world, people would grow their own food, or barter goods or services with others to get what they needed. Having purchased or harvested their food, people would then cook it themselves or together with others, and share it with families or friends. Or eat alone, if that’s what they chose.
The trouble is, even such a simple scenario relies on several elements. Obviously access to local food is the most apparent, and this is perhaps where most of the focus is placed — if everyone were able to source locally grown food, then something like the horsemeat scandal wouldn’t have occurred. In fact, this kind of accessibility would solve many problems.
However, it’s not just whether the food is available. There are several other issues. Can the consumer travel to get the food? How expensive is it? Does the consumer have the ability to store the food until it’s ready to prepare and eat? And perhaps most importantly, does the consumer have the skills and the time and the energy to cook a meal from that produce? It is all too easy to assume that, given the ingredients, people will be able to cook a meal from scratch. And for all the other variables which prevent people from achieving the ideal scenario — a meal cooked from scratch with locally sourced ingredients — I believe it is the lack of knowledge which is the greatest problem, because it is the one which is most often overlooked.
Overwhelmingly, food is becoming more expensive. It’s cheaper in some places than in others, but for most of us, it costs more than it used to, and people on a fixed income must find ways to split their finite financial resources more ways than in the past. How then, to ensure that the population stays healthy and that the produce available to them is sustainably produced? How to ensure that the people growing and manufacturing our food are fairly paid, fairly treated, and that our food is what we think it is?
We can attempt to make food more affordable, yet this often results in farmers being paid even less than their current moderate wage. Indeed, there is currently an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to find out if our two major supermarkets are using underhand and/or illegal tactics in their dealings with suppliers. Meanwhile, both supermarket chains are promoting themselves as affordable and saving money for families. We need to ask ourselves where we sit in this foodchain — we call for cheaper food, but we also want it to be organic, fair trade, free range. Are we part of the problem, as well?
I wonder if we need a new approach to food in general. It really is crazy that we should be eating food which is manufactured thousands of kilometres away, in another country. This model is both nonsensical and unsustainable; however, any alternative probably involves some lifestyle changes that many would be unwilling, or in some cases, unable to make.
Ready-meals fill a gap in the market. They are there for people who are not able to cook a meal from raw ingredients, either because they can’t, or they choose not to, or they don’t have the time or knowledge to do so. In some circles, there is judgement about this — and I’ll confess that I’ve been a food snob in the past (and probably still am, to some degree). Then, when my youngest child was a week old, I fell and injured my wrist, and ended up in plaster up to my elbow. Everything was difficult; everything required a re-think. Especially cooking. Ready meals became my friend, and all at once, I cursed my former dismissal of pre-prepared food. Still, I felt as if I were eating second-rate food, and wished there were a way around it.
In stepped my family and friends. We lived off soup and lasagne for a week, courtesy of my sister. Another friend dropped over with a homemade salad and fresh bread. Our community really came through for us. We needed help — and food — and they were there without us even having to ask.
And that’s perhaps what’s missing. That attractively photographed meal (and let’s face it, the food inside the box never seems to look like the picture on the outside!) fills a hole; it stops us from going hungry. But it’s not the same as a home-cooked meal. When we eat packet, ready-made food, we’re removing ourselves from the reality of food preparation, and when we rely on them for sustenance, we lose touch with what it is to be a human animal. There are those who don’t have the ability to prepare their own meals, and it should be a priority that they don’t have to rely on second-rate food. There are those who don’t have the time or the knowledge, and I believe that is a small tragedy in itself, too. Because while I definitely understand the meaning of time poverty, I also cherish the value of keeping alive the knowledge of how to create something whole out of so many parts.
Community, skills, knowledge. It is all part of the same complex mix. Buying pre-prepared food is a choice people are able to make, and we certainly need to ensure that there are enforced regulations to prevent contamination in the food we buy. But we also need to ask ourselves what is important to us, what kinds of foods we want to eat, and to realise that if we’re leaving the preparation and cooking of our food up to someone else, then we’re not going to necessarily know — or like — what they’re putting in it.