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Lauraine Jacobs: Questions That Beg Answers

The price of lettuce

In the first week of our nationwide Covid Lockdown I ventured out to the supermarket and bought, amongst a small trolley load of food, a beautiful crisp fresh lettuce, grown in local soils. I gulped at the price, $4.99, but knew it would last us for three or four meals, and would stay crunchy in my fridge over the coming week. But when I saw, on TV news that evening, a giant field of lettuces that were going to be ploughed in as their Pukekohe grower had no market for them, I was enraged.

That same evening another news story highlighted how food banks were running out as the demand to be fed under lockdown was unprecedented. To me those two news clips said everything about a food system that was unfair, unconnected and not working well for anybody who wasn’t a supermarket supplier or owner. Don’t even start me on the inequality of food distribution that leads to food insecurity. Grrrr.

Last year through Covid lockdowns and with cries from consumers who were turning the spotlight on food costs, our government ordered an investigation into supermarket pricing. Conclusions were drawn up, recommendations were sent to committees and to date not much has happened and very little has changed. Small guys still can’t find their way into the aisles and shelves, the duopoly stands fast and it seems ironic that having uncovered faults in the supermarket system we were once again consigned, in most cases by government decree, to limit our shopping again to these big players who draw up contracts with suppliers and keep smaller and often more specialised growers out. The supermarket owners’ pockets must be bulging with the windfall from the profits they’ve made. And many small guys continue to suffer.

Sure, we can shop online for food, if we know where to find the suppliers and how to manage electronic transfers of money, but I look at the plethora of small local and customer focussed bakeries, butchers and fruit and vegetable shops close to the surrounding community who have been forced to close for six weeks now. And I know many of the artisan producers and growers who tend and nurture their crops to cater to the whims of the hospitality sector who have lost their market share completely.

The rules, administered by MBIE haven’t improved or moved from the experiences of 2020. I wonder if anyone at MBIE has ever stopped to think about the ‘I’ in their name. To me they show little inkling of awareness of Innovation for anything, and complete lack of understanding of the meaning of the ‘B’ to small Business in both the food sector and the hospitality industry. However full marks for recognition of ‘E’ as supplements are paid out to keep the wolf from the door of Employees, and there are resurgence payments offered to the many who qualify. Of course we cannot expect our government to shoulder every loss, but both government and the people (us) they’re keeping safe must recognise that all pay outs will be ultimately be traced back or forward to taxpayers.

There are key questions that beg answers. Why should we be directed to shop in supermarkets where we’re exposed to everyone who does not keep their distance and is permitted to touch and handle produce? Why, when we could go to our preferred small local food shops who know and care for their customers in ways the supermarkets can’t even begin to think about? Why should conscientious growers and small artisan producers who regularly supply those boutique like businesses or are in the phase of growth where their only market is the local farmer’s market be forced to consign their produce to the compost heap? Could there be assistance to get such products to where they are really needed – the food banks? Could we have some innovation please?

The one question that keeps on recurring on social media is why do vegetables cost so much? Often the immediate answer to that is seasonality. Our duopoly of food marketers has done New Zealanders a great disservice by supplying everything year round, even if it means importing unseasonal fare, to the point where we all just expect to the food we love at the same old price every single day of the year.

I believe that it is mainly lack of insight into true costs which do not appear obvious when you hold that vegetable (or fruit) in your hands. It is rather like the poor hospitality people who constantly meet resistance when prices creep up. There are so many associated expenses that are unseen. Every cost has risen. Transport, rent, packaging, fuel, production, insurance, and labour which is in short supply and a very real problem with little relief in sight for both the food and the hospitality industries. Why should consumers expect in-store and restaurant prices not to rise? Why

should the growers give their hard earned products away? Currently there’s a real and much needed focus on sustainability. Never lose sight of the most important part of any business is to be sustainable it must be profitable. Not huge greedy profits that some people associate with business but enough profit keep in business, keep employees happy and hopefully pay enough tax to keep the world turning.

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Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs, MNZM is one of New Zealand's best known food writers, former columnist for The Listener and Cuisine. She is the author of a number of cookbooks, including her latest work, 'It Takes A Village' is a guide to Matakana. Visit her site www.laurainejacobs.co.nz.

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