I bought a 3kg bag of carrots at Costco at $4.99. That’s a lot of carrots considering I live alone. But the deal seemed good – but would it turn into 24 carrot gold? I knew I could save precious pennies over the next two to three weeks – just eat more carrots. After all, carrots last a long time when kept dry in the fridge. At first, I was able to take my time – finely shaving carrots into fresh ginger and sesame salad. Throwing a few in the oven to roast. But by the end of the second week, I needed to speed up how I was using this resource, so I didn’t lose it. Over the space of a weekend, I made another 18 meal portions using those leftover carrots, in addition to the 7 or so I’d managed in the first couple of weeks. And that’s when I realised how political my cheap bag of carrots really was. Like so many things – a great offer is sometimes only sweet for a short amount of time before it becomes a loss, unless you know how to use it well and realise the value of the deal. How to use the resource effectively and what other resources you need to turn carrots into extra pennies in the budget. Turns out a bag of carrots can be just like politics and just like business. Political, because the carrots themselves represent a certain concrete value in the marketplace. For a time. Then depending on the hands they land in, they become more or less valuable. A lot of people will go to the polls this weekend thinking about carrots, what they’ll get from whoever they hope ends up in power. I’m stuck thinking about what I’ll make from the carrots I get. I’m thinking about exponential value and how to get less dependent on carrots.
Let me explain: in my hands, one bag of carrots becomes two 1 litre jars of quick pickled Bahn mi carrots for salads, sandwiches, tacos, spring rolls – least six – seven servings of vegetables. I can also turn it into carrot cake overnight oats for a breakfast that is nutritious, tasty, and with an assortment of oats and spices from my existing pantry comes in at a whopping $1.03 per serve. The most expensive part of that meal is the yogurt I add for creamy indulgence because I no longer make it myself. I can turn another 300g of carrot puree into gnocchi, using some flour and an egg, that gently tossed with some of my garden herbs and butter becomes a filling and simple meal. Roasted carrots with butter beans, and feta making another 4 portions of a tasty, nutritious and also vegetarian meal. Another 2 x 2 portion freezer bags of carrot sticks for a later date. On and on it goes until I have 24 portions of food from one three kilo bag of carrots. Technically it’s about $0.21 a portion. And if I saved the GST on that bag of carrots, I would have hopefully saved the full 15%, making it $4.34 per bag and $0.18c per portion. But that’s not really how it works, because I haven’t accounted for the cost of all the other resources I need to make it happen. The cheapest portion I made was the gnocchi, at $0.94c but the most expensive was $13.41 because I splashed out on a steak. Just like politics, the value of a meal is the sum of the ingredients and it’s hard to compare. Even if I did the averages (nearly the worst kind of politics, math and cooking) each meal was still at least $6 of cost because you can’t buy olive oil in tablespoons. Even this is generous – I haven’t factored in the power consumption from the kitchen appliances or the accumulation of that power of time while the rest of last month’s bargain is still resting in the freezer. Even a bargain and even a tax cut can cost you money over time. What value do I give a reusable silicon freezer bag?
With the $0.65 of GST I might have saved, I could perhaps buy another two or three carrots, depending on the time of year or the yield. But what cost the skills and 20 years experience to turn that bag of carrots into not one not two, not three, but over five different variations of nutritious meals that help me save money?
But a bag of carrots is political, and food is as political as healthcare because eventually they are the same thing.
A bag of carrots is political, as is tax. It’s just the politics of food is deathly silent at the moment. We’re having more conversations about sugar and fizzy than we are about food deserts and distribution mechanics. Parts of the agricultural sector are still on their knees trying to generate demand for a North Island flour mill so we’re not so reliant on sending our grain to Australia to be ground to flour so we can buy it back. They need a certain level of commercial commitment to realise it – and we need a certain kind of resource in hand in order to unlock the value from other resources. That resource is productivity and innovation, I reckon. None of the political carrots being dangled are really that enticing, nor are they that innovative. Innovation is happening out in the private sector, where we’re trying to solve the problems of food security and distribution, of sharing Mana Kai – complex solutions to our food security and our economic productivity in a world where we can no longer rely on climate stability for growing crops or protein. My bag of carrots in the trolley is also an symbol of my fear. I am afraid. I’m trying to build all three businesses, creating more jobs, economic contribution and better industry in all three. In fact, the output of all three companies is to improve business, enhance employee engagement, performance and retention and to help educate people whilst having fun in all aspects of New Zealand’s vital tourism, hospitality, food and beverage story. And I am buying bags of carrots at $4.99 for three kilos because I am afraid. I spend hours each week strategizing my weekly food budget. I’ve put every cent into the building these businesses and it is hard work. Money is less than short. I have some privilege to do what I do – but in every other sense I’m back in the childhood I grew up in. Conscious of every dollar, working as much as I can to gather every dollar I can. Sacrificing wherever I can and feeling grateful for every gift that comes my way, from neighbour’s eggs and lemons to the broccoli houseguests bring. Goodbye avocados, you’re something to look forward when we close the next sale, if I can keep my teams employed. Carrots for lunch, carrots for dinner. I’d rather see a progressive tax system that recognises contribution towards generating productivity and economic momentum – give me a tax break I can use to keep fuelling business growth and I’ll happily keep turning carrots into gourmet dinners. I think my eyesight might be improving too, so maybe I’ll also save money at the optometrist.
Starting Up: Of course I knew that going into to start-up life again, exactly what to expect. Start-up life is giving all you’ve got even if it doesn’t look like it from the outside. But I didn’t expect a 17% cost of living rise when I moved from big expensive Auckland to smaller, less expensive Rotorua. Turns out the economy isn’t minding its peas and carrots the way I have been. I did this to myself, I remember as I reheat another portion of carrot & bean soup and sitting down to another round of board reports.
And that’s my privilege – I am counting the dollars and cents and making them stretch because owning my own businesses gives me hope that I can rise above and generate exponential income beyond working an hourly rate or salary in someone else’s business. If I can create 24 jobs from my one business – that’s value from a bag of carrots, isn’t it? My mother raised three kids on her own and at my age, was already smashing it, steadily climbing the ladder to put us into the best possible public schools, with extracurricular activities and the chance to learn to cook. We grew up learning to make budget Bolognese (it’s not Bolognese at all, I know now). And today, I am once again buying carrots on special because it will give me an extra $20 bucks in the household budget. I’m buying carrots because I know too much rice or potatoes will pile on my hips, already straining under the gym membership I sacrificed. Walking doesn’t make up for strength training, but that comes with avocados. But long term health impacts of short-term hunger pains can wait for the next go-round, right?
Food is political – it’s by privilege I know how to make carrots stretch because the fibre and nutrients are worth the slight orange tinge my kitchen has taken on. Carrots for breakfast: 7 apples a week becomes 3 and at $4.50kg apples are more precious than – well, carrots. I’m making breakfast for the week at 11.21pm on a Sunday night. I just finished for the day – working more than two jobs trying to get enough billables this month to pay the bills. One of these days I could go back to the workforce. Be a single earning unit again. Just one bag of carrots instead of exponential value – like 24 meals. But if I quit, that’s actually 8 jobs gone from our economy. That’s how many people are working because I work and I’m eating carrots, but this is not a complaint.
(Some would argue maybe I’m not very good at business. Remains to be seen but the signs are positive in the other direction. Largely we’re building and re-building from scratch, invested all in and that’s what it takes – success is not guaranteed. But I could quit, get a job and then maybe I would care more about those tax breaks. I’d rather work hard enough to not care about tax breaks, because I’m earning enough to pay it with joy.)
Politics for breakfast too. $2.39 worth of oats is 2 weeks of oaty breakfast. Milk powder a better option than fresh. I know how to do this budgeting life but only because I learned economics and kitchen math. Cost x portions x time x equipment x pantry staples. Ganesh Raj and Michel van der Elsen are saving thousands with their weekly Eat Well For Less show on TVNZ. But those thousands won’t build the public transport security we need to get people effortlessly in and out of supermarket reach. Sophie Gray’s work with The Destitute Gourmet keeps springing back to mind but there’s a layer of population health attached to it now. Even if you could put a GST-free bag of $4.34 carrots in every household in the country – how much could be used effectively before thrown out for waste or a toddler’s likes or dislikes? Have you tried making toddlers eat carrots for days? Or left a carrot to go soft in the fridge? What a privilege it is to waste, what a privilege to not need wastage.
Saving less than $1 on a bag of carrots does not come with the skills, knowledge or education to really make the value of that $5 investment stretch so far. I paid a different price for that ability. And for all the political carrots on offer this election, there are some parts of the math I can’t break down or find a cure for yet – vital things wrong with our food system such as where will we grow carrots in 5 or 10 years time when the climate has changed our geographical food baskets forever. What will happen when people no longer know how to cook, how to preserve, how to bottle, how to can. We’re dollar poor but we are also time-poor and the majority of New Zealand live in relative food deserts. What you eat and how you eat have always been a matter of privilege and time is the greatest privilege of all. Politics is cheaply produced commercial white bread. Those of us who understand nutrition at a deep level bemoan the vast quantity of cheaper, highly processed food. But I also know it comes with longer shelf life, greater accessibility and stability and that even 10 year olds, heck, even eight year olds know how to put a packet of ramen in a microwave. And those carby little treats are salty and just enough to fill them up for an hour or two before dinner. Have you ever tried convincing a three year old who doesn’t want carrots that they dipped in hummus compared with their favorite cracker? Or gummy worm? Or treat? It’s highly dangerous to over-politicize food or make what you eat a moral issue. But it’s even more dangerous to not see the politics of food at all. How appropriate to be able to vote at the malls this season.
But a bag of carrots is political, and food is as political as healthcare because eventually they are the same thing. Man cannot live on bread alone but for now, I can live on carrots. It’s not just the cooking and kitchen math skills that I’ve gathered over years or because vocationally I’ve been involved in the food sector for a long time. It’s that when I wasn’t pouring every cent into my businesses, trying to create jobs and productivity, (which by the way, is the real political carrot that no one is dangling enough of) – I was lucky enough to afford good knives. I am lucky enough to have a fully stocked kitchen and what pantry staples to keep on hand. I am lucky enough to know that butter beans will work well with roasted carrots. I’m also lucky enough to use combinations of dried spice that provide the same warming and zingy texture and taste as harissa but for cents on the dollar. I am lucky that we grew up being grateful for food, because we could not afford the best of the best. I am lucky I am not a food snob as well as a food writer. And I am lucky enough to know carrots are political.
Removing GST from a bag of carrots will achieve very little without also creating the security, access, education and supporting infrastructure to make sure the value of the carrot is maximized by the hands that hold them. Much like the hands that will hold our economy, hopefully with a focus on productivity, on jobs that pay well. So people don’t need second jobs, on reducing our reliance on housing as a means of wealth generation, and instead throwing our small business owner energy into generating jobs and productivity beyond what we’ve ever known before. That’s the real future. Where you can give people carrots at the price they’re worth and they have the skills, knowledge and time to know what to do with them. That’s the real break everybody needs.