Thursday 22 November 2012

Food price, at what cost?

wondering about increasing food prices, why people eat crappy food thinking it's ok for them, and figuring out how much it cost me to have an organic meal last night (with recipe)

The British, as portrayed in the media, are facing food poverty, or "nutrition recession" as the Guardian put it.

Now, this is the kind of information that turns my stomach.
And I tell you as someone that is currently out of a job: even if I cannot define myself other than rather well off, as a foreigner in this country during a period of economic stagnation I have to worry about my future budget availability. Am I going to skimp on food?

Definitely not, and certainly not as my first move.
There are quite a lot of things that are not essential in our lives: plenty of clothes, the latest technology gadgets, driving a car all the time - and those are just some.

But food is essential. It is the fuel that makes our bodies work. And what you put in, you get out. Adding the trouble of poor health to financial problems is doing nobody any good. Besides, food is an inexpensive pleasure that we can enjoy with our family and friends. It gives colour and flavour to life.

Is the price of food the first thing we need to address for better nutrition? Maybe not.

We do not spend that much of our budgets on food, anyway. In 2009, the average UK household spent 11.5% of their budget on food and drink, the lowest income households spending a bit more at 16% [1]. Back in the 60s, it was +20% [2]. So food is considerably more affordable now than it has ever been. And we are among the luckiest: in developing countries food costs way more, with Kenyan households spending some 45% of their budgets [3]. With all that extra availability, it is disgraceful that we do end up eating nutrition-poor diets here.

Even if rising, food prices are still comparatively low. So, why do people turn straight to cheap, processed food, that is nutritionally poor albeit "filling", and makes them sick and the environment worse off ? I find that a bit baffling myself, but I suspect there are many factors involved, as well as a healthy dose of laziness.

1. expectations and perceptions on the price of food

It appears a lot of people consider good, healthy food a preserve of the rich. And organic as the brand name for frivolously expensive food, not - as it actually is - the normal way to produce food, proven by millennia of human history. In fact, what we call "conventional" agriculture has been around only for less than a century, a lot of it spurred by a need to find a use for the thriving post-war chemical industry.

Besides, a 60 odd year-long ad campaign has drilled into our heads that food has to be cheap, we have a right to cheap food. It does not matter what the real costs are: how much it actually costs to produce food in the fields, whether our farmers are paid decent wages, if there are any drawbacks to current production and processing methods - on the environment we live in and on our health.

2. misinformation and lack of awareness

How many people really know what's behind the glossy appearance of the food supply chain? Who has the time and means to find out? Without mentioning that calling for cheap food wins votes - pointing out the real cost of food not that many.

Besides, many do not seem aware of the nutritional value of different foods, and, in any case, they would not know how to cook them.
Despite the proliferation of celebrity chefs - on TV, on the web and in the bookstores - everyday cooking from scratch is far from being part of the everyday life of most people.

We throw away enormous amount of food - often we buy too much without realising (allured by misleading promotions of all kinds [4], sometimes we do not know if something is still good to eat, most of the time - it's so cheap - we do not realise the effort needed to produce food [5].

3. culture and social pressures

And the culture around food in general does not seem to help. I was beyond shocked by an article last year: "toast sandwich is UK cheapest meal". Its playfulness I found appalling. The nutritional value of industrial bread with butter and seasoning must be close to zero. The fact that is filling is not really relevant. And that they called a contest to find an even cheaper meal isn't just sending the plain wrong signals? Well, it was after all the Royal Society of Che-mi-stry (rather than say a farmer or cook) to push this genius idea...

If it is more socially acceptable, aka "cooler", to eat lukewarm soggy stuff in a bag from a fast food chain, than spending a little bit of time turning vegetables into appetizing meals, well, then I do not see many people choosing to spend time figuring out what to do with vegetables.

With the fact that being overweight does not seem as big a taboo here as it is in Italy (you know it was very difficult to find clothes above size 16 when I was there? that worked to keep me on a diet!), there is not that much pressure to keep fit and knowing your food as part of it.


Grilled mackerel with beetroot salad

Now, last night I had a rather special fish meal, which was also very quick to prepare, healthy, filling and so tasty. All of the ingredients were sustainable and organic, a mixture of my own, Riverford's (cheaper, more quality but less variety) and Abel and Cole's (more expensive but more variety). Except coffee, which came from Sainsbury's. Did it cost me much? Let's try to figure out.

Cornish mackerel fillets 350 gr                                £3.39
extra virgin olive oil 4 tbsp/80 ml                             £0.55 (I buy mine from Riverford in a 2 l tin)
1 red chilli                                                              £0.55
1 knob ginger 10 gr                                                £0.13
1 garlic clove 10 gr                                                 £0.15 actually, I grew my own
potatoes 300 gr                                                      £0.35 actually, I grew my own
beetroot 300 gr                                                      £0.58
2 celery sticks                                                        £0.44
1 tsp mustard 10 gr                                                £0.20
1 tsp sea salt 10 gr                                                 £0.01 (price from Neifislife)
plus we had a UK apple each                                £0.85
and a fairtrade espresso each  20 gr                       £0.32

we drank tap water (price negligible).

Time to prepare 30-40 min.
Prepare the chilli, ginger and garlic infusion by chopping finely and adding to 2 tbsp oil. Set aside.
Boil the potatoes and beetroot - my auntie says: "under the ground cold water, above ground hot water" so I placed the veggies in the pan with cold water and brought to the boil, then added salt and simmered on for 10 mins or so until tender.
Peel the veggies and cut into chunks. Add the celery, chopped. Mix the mustard into the remaining 2 tbsp of oil, and season the warm salad with it. I did not use any salt but you could.

Wash briefly the fillets under a tap, score the skin, pour the infusion over them, place on a tray skin up, and pass under the grill until the skin is crispy, some 5 mins in all.



Now, this was a treat of a meal, yet very quick and easy to prepare, and came to just under £8 GBP for the two of us. Plus the fuel for the cooking, but not much of it.

Not many takeways that cost less, right? Even a Papa John's pizza meal offer costs £5/head - and you do not know what you are REALLY eating!

Instead, our meal was very nutritious with proteins from the fish, carbs in the potatoes, fibers and vitamins in the apples, beetroot, celery, ginger, garlic and chilli, sugars in the apple and some healthy fat from the oil. Then there was the coffee, not very healthy and not the most environmentally friendly of things. But at least it was fairtrade as well as organic, so the farmers got a fair pay for their work.

And we have a clear conscience. To make our veggies and fruit no pesticide were sprayed to kill bees and ladybirds and make the farmers sick, the fish was caught by day boats, not trawlers damaging the sea bed. The apples were not shipped from the other side of the world, burning oil and polluting. As most of the produce was from the UK, we supported British fishermen and farmers. Supermarket chains only provided the coffee, nothing else.

What do you think? Is price of food the real problem?

[1] source DEFRA Food Pocketbook 2011
[2] source DEFRA Food Security 2006
[3] source Mother Jones
[4]  BBC Rip Off Food series was interesting in this respect, if you get a chance watch it
[5] more info on food waste and how to avoid it