As chefs, food is our life. We work with it every day, but do we really value it? Do we think of how it arrived in our kitchens? Who planted it? What is the systems that produced and processed it? Or has it become a commodity that has to be managed to achieve a perfect food cost and happy customers.
Tracy Ledger’s thought provoking An Empty Plate: Why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters, and how we can win it back, is a guaranteed wakeup call for anyone in South Africa’s food industry and should perhaps be compulsory reading for Executive Chefs. It is not a cheffy book. It is a book about food, South Africans and social justice.
An Empty Plate asks and answers very controversial questions regarding South Africa’s food policies and there is no doubt that Ledger will have some fierce critics, especially from the retail sector. But the facts and figures (and there are many that will both surprise and shock) are difficult to argue. What happened in a country with a constitutional right to food that 1 in 4 children are so malnourished that they are classified as stunted and that 40% of children show measurable side effects as a result of poor nutrition? Why are food prices constantly rising, yet farmers go out of business? Why are farmworkers that produce our food, some of the most food insecure in our country?
Ledger (a South African researcher in Economic Development with a PhD in Anthropology and Master’s in Agricultural Economics) passionately explains the challenges in our agri-food system ranging from poverty, land reform, nutrition and inequality to power, corporate profits and the unanticipated consequences of the free-market system implemented after 1994. Ledger unpacks government policy and explains it successfully in layman’s terms and supports her arguments convincingly with sometimes heartbreaking examples.
There are clear culprits in Ledger’s argument – Retailers and large food producers with their eye on shareholder and management bonus pools, rather than their consumers. There are examples of price fixing, how farmers are bullied for lower prices by those with power (money and market share) and how our entire society is structured to support retailers rather than small independent businesses. Even when small farmers do well they are encouraged by government to expand and sell to retailers, rather than supplying their own communities directly with a variety of affordable and nutritional products.
“We justify not taking care of the most vulnerable on our society because it does not make ‘economic’ sense. And food is no longer about nourishment and life; it is about profit and efficiency and the effective allocation of resources. We can no longer think about ‘value’ without thinking about money.”
Ledger argues that at we are currently running our country on an “economic morality” rather than a “human morality” and that a new system based on solidarity and ethical food citizenship could result in a more equitable agri-food system that will help repair our social fabric and allow for a more equitable society.
Apart from suggested solutions for government to address the unbalanced distribution of power, Ledger points out that there is a lot that ordinary citizens can do, contrary to popular belief that we don’t have the power to make a difference.
We should become ethical food citizens. “The second part of being an ethical food citizen is to make good use of one of our greatest powers to effect change – our money. We really do live in a material world, and although it seems paradoxical we can make our economy more human through the way we choose to spend our money.”
As chefs with buying power this is perhaps a message for us. We might not agree with all of Ledger’s arguments, but we at least need to take note of it and take responsibility for where we choose to spend our money. If we can demand hygiene audits from our suppliers why not labour audits? Should we support unfair practice?
Do we want to serve perfect food cost garnished with guilt and social injustice, or plates of kindness that supports a better society? This can also be at perfect food cost, but will require greater effort.
Ledger’s final thoughts are perhaps some of her most powerful, explaining that despite the title, her book is not about the absence of a meal. “It is about the absence of care, the absence of dignity and the absence of kindness. These are the real moral evils of our food system.”
At a time where we have witnessed that ordinary people can change the course of giant nations, this book could not have appeared at a more opportune moment.