INTERVIEW:WHAT’S WRONG WITH BREAD?

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Today I want to talk about a subject close to my heart: Food and why millions of well-fed people are dying of hunger, today. See report here.  Why do we eat what we eat? Ever asked yourself that question? Without thinking about weight loss. Why Burger King and not Chisanyama? Why Mcdonalds instead of Nandos? Why buy food at WoolWorths instead of cooking the food yourself? Why go to the Food Lovers’ market instead of the local farmer’s market or street vendors who sell fresh produce? What influences your choices? Is it the country you live in? Is it the car you drive? Where you live? Where you work? The work that you do? Where you went to school? Hygiene? Time? Social and economic status? What are the set of values which influence your decision making process when you go shopping for food or when you decide on a restaurant to eat at? Is taste the only deciding factor? Service? Money? Personal Preferences, Culture, Tradition, Politics, Comfort or Ease?

Do you ever think about it?

I started to think about these questions more deeply in the process of trying to understand how my mind works. I started to notice specific behavioural patterns induced by varying stages or degrees of hunger in my own life. When I started to pay attention to what hunger does to the physiology of the body, its biological functions – I started to see amazing connections between how those energy systems or energy in motion (emotions) influence how I felt, how those feelings influenced my thoughts, how those thoughts influenced my actions or behaviour which then produced certain outcomes or results. Food then was not simply just stuff I consumed to stay alive, but the kind of food I ate also influenced the quality of the life I led.  The more I searched deeper and deeper I began to discover that what I eat, not only influences my health or what I look like, but most importantly how my thoughts are formed. Access to food influences how I think about myself and the world around me. The food I eat on a daily basis actually directly influences the quality and kinds of thoughts I think every day.

Can you imagine that?

I suppose we all know this. The choices you make when you are hungry are very different to those you make when you are full. The choices you make after you’ve eaten a large burger are different from the ones you make after eating a bowl of fresh greens, simply because the nutritional value is different. The fuel is different. The chemical digestive Process is different.  It’s the difference between drinking water and having a shot of vodka. Not only is food essential for brain function but the type of food we eat can enhance or impair how our brain works, how we think, feel and behave.

So what’s wrong with Bread?

Paying attention to my body (biology) helped me to understand the intricacies of the global food system. While the question of how food systems work or how your plate of food influences labour and the economy is too complex to unravel in one simple blogpost, I thought we should at least start to think about how we acquire the food we eat and what it does to us our bodies and the world we must continue to live in once we‘ve eaten it.

Food like politics makes the world go round.  Whole revolutions have been started by a lack of certain foods. So I decided to enlist the help of a dear friend Brittany Kesselman who is a food systems researcher and founder of Jozi(Un)cooked to help me understand how food systems work outside of my body and how those systems impact on my food choices and ultimately my perspective on life or the quality of my thoughts. Ms K can see all the way down the alphabet when it comes to food, so I thought I should ask once and for all what, if anything is wrong with bread (read food) and what I can do about it.

JediW: What’s wrong with bread?

BrittanyK: Many things are wrong with bread and nothing is wrong with bread. The current dehumanization of bread as the evil food responsible for everyone being overweight and unhealthy I think is a bit unfair to bread. But at the same time bread as we know it today – in the mainstream in the supermarkets is in some ways worthy of that characterization because it is made of highly processed, heavily sprayed with chemicals, industrially produced artificial ingredients that are designed to travel long distances and stay on the shelves for a long time and so they are incredibly unhealthy and are responsible for people being over-weight and under nourished.

This bread is nothing like the daily bread of the past.

JW: Are you suggesting that we do away with bread? People can hardly afford it as it is.

Bk: I’m suggesting that we radically overhaul the food system so that it doesn’t produce bread like that anymore. In fact the consumption of bread as a staple in this country (South Africa) by the majority of the population is only about a 50 or 60 year old phenomena. People didn’t eat bread but in the bad old days (Apartheid/colonial era) there were farmer co-ops they artificially lowered the price of bread and pushed it to become a staple for the underpaid labouring majority who hadn’t been previously eating bread and now when the government just raised the wheat tariff to protect wheat farmers in this country, people worried that it would increase the bread price, in fact only about 30 percent of the price of bread is related to the price of wheat.  Which is odd because if you made bread properly, if you just make it and ate it, about 95 percent of your bread price would be based on wheat.

There’s marketing, transport, packaging, the price of bread is not reflective of the ingredients used to make bread but is reflective of all those other things. The costs are born out of this long distance food systems. If you had someone growing wheat nearby, if you had someone milling wheat nearby and baking bread nearby it wouldn’t have to cost so much.

JW: But there’s a bakery  down the road here  which bakes bread every day and bread there costs twice as much as the standard bread loaves found in mainstream supermarkets?

Their bread is pricey because the current food system favours mass production instead of small scale production. So people receive benefits like access to credit and other things from the government for being large which gives them an unfair advantage and that enables them to have very low prices. But they still have all of these other costs that they then add in that makes the prices go up. If you pay labour a fair price and you grow a quality ingredient then it’s also true that food shouldn’t be super cheap, cheap, cheap. Because farming very is hard work and producing food is hard work and so it does have costs and the costs in some ways are artificially low even though they seem to be too expensive for other people because everyone is unemployed. The reality is if you had the proper cost for food to reflect its actual value – good food – then you’d have to pay more for it. People would have to be paid fairly across the economic chain in order for them to afford good food. It takes cheap food to create cheap labour and none of those things should be cheap.

JW: I’m not sure that many people would want to think about what you’ve just said when deciding on what to eat for lunch?

BK: It’s a lot to think about. But for someone who is struggling to buy that loaf of bread might wish to be aware that it’s not their individual fault that they are struggling to buy that loaf of bread but it’s the system. The system that creates that bread is the very same system that leaves them unemployed or working on a job where they can still not afford to buy bread.  And so at the moment good food costs more than it should but some of it is not that expensive. So a bag of lentils is not expensive but goes a long way in terms of calories and nutrients.  A head of cabbage is not so expensive it goes a long way as well. So someone might need to keep buying that bread and fill up on calories right now but could perhaps mixed it in with more healthy items and then we need to start advocating for changing to the systems so that people can afford good food.

JW: Oh my god lentils, I think they’re so boring!

BK: Lentils are not boring, the entire Indian Sub-continent eats them every day and they taste delicious. I mean is mealie meal exciting food? A great deal of this country according to studies live on plain bread or mealie meal, most of the time. That’s not exciting food either, it’s what people can manage, so if you can manage something else that’s better for you… Lentils are not familiar and the fact is lentils are not indigenous to this region but other beans are and nobody is eating those anymore like Bambara beans? It’s not something you see, those are indigenous to South Africa, what happened to Bambara beans? Millet is indigenous to Africa, why aren’t we eating millet?  The thing is these things can grow more cheaply, wheat is  not indigenous to this region so growing wheat here sometimes involves acquiring more chemicals or more water or more costs compared to growing something more indigenous.

JW: Is paying less for bread the solution? #BreadPriceMustfall

BK:The fact that a small number of corporations – the oligopolies of the world own every stage of the food systems in this country from the fertilizers to the seeds, to the large still white-owned commercial farms to the few dealers and a few retailers, all of those oligopolies are making billions of rands in profit while people can’t afford to eat. And the point of the BreadPricesMustfall campaign is that it’s unfair, unjust if not criminal that they could be making billions, while people can’t afford to eat. It’s not as though they are selling the bread at cost, or close to at cost, they are making literally billions! And I would agree that if you treat food as a human right which is what it is according to the South African constitution other than a commodity then you don’t make it about profit you make it about a public good. But ultimately what we should pay less for is not chemical laden, nutrient poor white bread, we should pay less for good food.

JW: How do you define good food?

BK: Good food is nourishing. Not only to your body biologically but also to your spirit. Good food is food that was not produced through exploiting workers, it was not produced by destroying the planet, it was not produced with chemicals, and it is produced with love in traditional ways that then nourish your body and your community and your planet. And Ideally you will then sit down and enjoy that good food with good people around you, so that it’s actually an entire experience and not something you eat while driving your car or sitting at your desk at work.

JW: I’ve never consciously thought of food as a human right, like water. I’ve always thought that if I want food I must go out and work for it. I’ve never thought that my right to life equates to the right to food? Is that crazy?

BK: In this neoliberal world we’ve come to think of food as something you have to pay for, in many ways water has also become something that we pay for, land is something that we pay for and before we know it air will be something that we pay for. That’s the spread of neo-liberalism, the idea that everything falls under the market place.  But I think we need to take certain key things back out of that market system or at least recognize that they are beyond the market system and food is definitely one of them. Because if you don’t have food you cannot enjoy a single other human right. There’s no point in having a right to vote, or a right to education if you don’t eat because, you’re dead.

JW: Are there healthy food systems in the world we could emulate? How can an individual affect change?

BK: It’s challenging because the oligopolistic industrial system is certainly the main one at the moment globally. To seek to imagine alternatives, sometimes it’s more imagining than seeing, but there are pockets of alternatives that have sprouted up all over the place. And are spreading and give us glimmers of hope and some examples like, in Cuba out of necessity when the Soviet Union fell no longer had support from the communist bloc , they had to make another plan because suddenly there was no  cheap petrol coming in and cheap fertilizers, so they transformed the entire agricultural system.

In Chiapas, Mexico you see more of a solidarity economy, in Malawi to a more agro-ecological approach and also changing gender relations within the food system so that they can produce healthy food by involving both men and women in these tasks, so there are little pockets. You see people occupying land in Brazil, you see people saying no to genetically modified expensive seeds and chemicals opting to use agro-ecological approaches, you see people trying to save heirloom seeds and bring back traditional varieties instead of the few mono-cultures that people tend to grow now. So there are pockets were people are either fighting back or imagining new futures or going back to traditional ways which worked well before.

JW: Does buying Organic Food from Supermarkets help?

BK: Look if you’re buying organic from the shop, yes you’re buying a product that wasn’t sprayed with thousands of chemicals and already that’s an improvement. And you’re also sending a market signal through the retailers to the farmers that there is demand for this type of alternative way of production. But if you’re buying it from the supermarket from one of those few retailers which control the entire retail sector then you’re not exactly striking a blow to the entire economic system behind the food chains. So if you have the option of doing it, it is certainly worth doing, but buying organic won’t change the system.

JW: What more would we need to do?

BK: We need to find alternative means of sourcing our food, we need to get out of the supermarkets if we can and buy from small farmers who get such a small percentage of the price when we buy from supermarkets, but if you can skip the supermarket and the other middlemen and purchase your food directly from farmers we can both negotiate a fair price. We can also communicate directly with the farmers about what we want and the types of food they can grow, so it gives the producer and the consumer more control.

JW: But wouldn’t that be inconvenient?

BK:Maybe, but it has become inconvenient because our entire systems of living have changed. In many parts of the world both in the north and the south there are weekly if not daily famers markets, people go and buy fresh things and they buy them because they are good. Why don’t we have that?

 JW: How effective are food gardens in changing the system?

BK:On the one hand they don’t have a big impact in terms of how much food they are able to produce. It’s not likely that the city will be able to feed itself ever.  But on the other hand they have a very big impact first because they reconnect people to their food. Remember there are children who don’t even know where their food comes from or that a vegetable grows from the ground and that’s extraordinary. When people in the community are growing different food they can start to trade it, they can start to share it and they begin to step out of the main economy as well. We can re-establish those community bonds over food which the supermarket takes away from us.

JW: Isn’t that like going backwards? Isn’t that old and boring, haven’t we evolved from that?

I think the modernist notion of progress is something that is questionable. It’s only the neoliberalist system that has convinced us that living an individualistic, career cantered life is of value. Many of the values that may have been lost along the way are certainly worth reviving and preserving.

JW: But Why though? I think some people might aspire to one day being able to afford Burger King…

Brittany K: And once they are able to afford Burger King they will find that they are not any happier! Once they can afford Burger KING and KFC they will still not be any happier. But they will have a higher chance of getting a heart attack or a stroke or Diabetes of Hypertension. The singular focus on wealth as the path to happiness is ridiculous, because it minimizes all of our other elements as human beings and we’re multidimensional creatures if we put all our focus on one dimension we will never be happy. It’s not as if there is a lower incidents of depression amongst the wealthy. That’s just strictly not true.

JW: So would baking your own bread be a solution to the current nutrient deficient bread sold at supermarkets?

BK:Your questions don’t have easy answers. In some ways yes, of course it would. Baking bread is extremely therapeutic you knead the bread and it’s like giving yourself a massage! But if you have to buy the mainstream bread of that flour to make that bread, it’s not significantly radical and in our rushed time pressed world people will find that they don’t have time to bake bread or don’t want to make time to bake bread. But if you start to break bread, if you find it therapeutic then you might look for better alternatives to the flour, find someone who is producing or selling such a thing and in another way then you’re getting out of the main stream and finding another way and you might find yourself baking more bread and sharing it with your neighbours. And then yes the might be a change.

JW: So the problem with bread is the flour?

BK:The problem with bread is the ten things I’ve said before. Certainly, flour is sprayed with chemicals and refined  to  no longer resemble the wheat that it once was in any way shape or form, our bodies don’t even recognize that it’s a food by the time it get into our system. There’s nothing so wrong with Wheat per se, human beings have consumed wheat for about ten thousand years but by the time it becomes that white flour in the supermarket it’s not food anymore.

JW: So are you saying that there’s not nutritional value whatsoever in the bread we buy at super markets even though they say it’s got added vitamins?

BKRaj Patel gives an amazing talk about poverty and added vitamins. Taking all of the nutrients out of an ingredient that originally had them because it looks better and lasts longer better and then pumping all the vitamins at the end is the ultimate capitalist way to approach food. Whereas using the fresh ingredient in its natural state with its original nutrients and then consuming it fairly quickly meaning there’s no shipping or transportation costs would be a better approach. But multinationals don’t benefit from that.

JW: So if I stopped buying from them would that change anything?

BK:Having worker owned co-operatives is certainly a solution. Places like Brazil and Argentina they have a lot of worker own co-operatives which tend to have more than just a profit motive, they have other social objectives to their businesses and they of course would want to make enough money to benefit those who participate from it but they care about their communities as well. Because they understand that they are embedded in those communities. So I cannot just say walk away from your job to those people who need that job but those who are in a position to look into alternatives and eventually create jobs from them should certainly do so.

Brittany Kesselman is a food systems researcher and founder of JoziUncooked, Johannesburg’s first raw food company. You can visit her website at JoziUncooked.com

*pictured: Bread-seller turned model, Olajumoke. credit: cnn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I CANNOT EAT ALONE: THE OTHER STATE OF THE NATION ADRESS

Communal Eating In Senegal
Communal Eating In Senegal

Last week I found myself dreading meal times. Eating left me feeling emptier than before, I ate. Though my belly was full, my soul felt emptier or the ‘hunger” had not gone away as one would naturally expect after a meal.   I found that to be  a puzzling phenomena.  How is that possible? How can I eat and still feel as hungry as if I hadn’t  eaten a single thing even though my stomach is full of food? Is it the food I choose to eat?  Or is it because I am not  making it myself? Why eat if  the  hunger does not  disappear?

I found that two things happened in this case ;   I either wanted to eat more hoping that the next thing  I eat will fill that gap or I just “forget” to eat.   But because the” full but empty” feeling is stronger right after you eat, it gives the illusion that  a little more food will quench your hunger for good so the  former is much more prevalent.  address

So this “full but empty” phenomena is happening to in the same week that the subject of food and eating in South Africa was making headlines and all for the wrong reasons.   “South African members  of parliament blame fattening food in parliament for their obesity” did not only make local headlines, the story was  covered by most of the major international news agencies. It was a peculiar story to say the least. A parliamentarian was quoted blaming the caterers for their obesity.  Parallel to that story a food services company published research which found that South Africa is the third fattest nation on earth. The study found that 61 percent of South African adults ate more and exercised less. At the same time there is a new global trend of  restaurants catering for people who want to eat alone. The first of its kind in Holland, Eenmall, offers diners a chance to eat completely alone with a single chair and everything. Founders of the  pop-up restaurant say they wanted to prove to the world that eating alone is not a taboo. In addition to that there’s the growing concern about an exponential increase in genetically modified foods in the country which makes  basics such as “maize” and “milk”  not what they used to be.   There seems to be a lot of issues involved in eating!

THE EXPERIMENT

So through news and current affairs I realized that I was not the only one having  trouble eating;  it seemed that I and 61 percent of our nation simply didn’t  know when to stop, eating. Of course it is understandable, eating is necessary for life – food is our life-source. So often people are more likely to encourage you to eat and eat more instead of advising you to eat less.  It can be a touchy subject  this eating  business. Because the fact remains that regardless of your size – everyone has to eat. Everyday preferably.  So regardless of what the facts are whether you’re  eating too much or too little is never anyone’s fault (really) since everyone has to eat right? Who are you to judge?

So why are we the third fattest nation on earth? How did we get here? Why are we eating so much? We must be stuffed if we are the third fattest nation in the world right?How do we solve the problem of obesity? I  for one am generally a light eater preferring to eat small amounts of food throughout the day instead of huge meals at one sitting. So this new change in me was troubling. I won’t blame winter or anyone for it.  In  an  effort to get to the source of the problem I decided to  experiment a little.  I fasted for two days drinking only tea and lemon water, then I ate what ever whenever I felt hungry, but since I had no food where I stay I had to go out, to cafe’s and restaurants to get food fast. The restaurants I visited were disappointing.   At most restaurants I found there was no love at all in the food, there was no evidence of care  from the moment of preparation to the presentation. There are some exceptions though, which came with equally exceptional prices,  but generally food at most restaurants was treated as a means to an end  and not an event in and of itself.  Tired of  being disappointed, I then decided to cook my own meals at home  and see if that would make a difference to the “full but empty” feeling.  Since I am a minimalist,  I chose ingredients that will be quick to prepare: spaghetti basil, garlic, ginger and olive oil pasta which I found much more fulfilling both to my stomach and my soul.  Through this week-long experiment I found that  eating out at bad restaurants or having ‘take-out” food increases the full but empty feeling while  preparing my own meal at home left me feeling much more satisfied and full  but it did not close the “full but empty” feeling entirely. So what gives?

EATING TOGETHER: “VIENNANT MANGER”

I found myself thinking often of Senegal when the subject of food came up. When I arrived in Senegal it took a while for me to eat local food.  Non-Senegalese people didn’t offer much confidence in Senegalese cuisine. The food is too oily and bland they said. So I ate chicken and rice which resulted in the same  “full but empty” feeling.

That feeling lingered on until I moved in with a Senegalese family where it was mandatory to eat together twice everyday  2pm lunch and 8 pm supper by clockwork.  There I learnt a new way of eating. A knock came at the door. “Jedi viennent manger” Jedi come eat.  Whether I felt hungry or not.  I arrived to find the entire family huddled around a huge platter of rice and two fish (see picture example above). Spoons positioned in around the tray or platter in a circle. The men squatted or sat on little stools, while women sat on the floor on their thighs, leaning to one side. Each person then began to eat from their section and the matriarch would distribute pieces of fish (a staple) and  vegetables to whoever needed.  It was a much more intimate way of eating which I had last experienced as a child. This brings you closer together in a way that I cannot fully describe using words.

At the “table” it was easy to tell if someone was happy or not,  just by the way they ate. It was easy to notice if someone was not home or deliberately missing meals. In Senegal there are only two excuses for not eating at home with your family: either you are at work or you are not well enough to eat with the family. No other excuse is permissible. At first I found this practice to be too claustrophobic (going against my individualistic eat when I want where ever I want preferably on my own sensibilities).  But soon I found it was the only way I found joy in eating and meal times and eating became something I looked forward to and enjoyed! No matter how hungry I was I would wait until it was meal times to eat with the family or go to town and share a meal with my many friends. I ended up eating much less than I would  eat if I had a plate all to myself. But eating was a more satisfying experience.

Sharing food is an ingrained part of Senegalese life, regardless of class or status. It doesn’t matter who you are or even where you come from, when it comes to food – Senegalese people share.  Their way of eating is not different to one the worlds fastest growing super powers – China – where meal times have been (this is changing) a treasured tradition. There meals are severd in smaller bowls  – but families also eat together as a matter of principle. Meal times or eating becomes a key feature in a persons day.  I’ve shared food with complete strangers in Senegal – eating from the same bowl as them with no fuss. Many of them did not have a lot in a way of material things, but they had food which was almost always shared. Even a tiny cup of coffee is shared in Senegal. To such an extent that those who decide to eat alone in the presence of others have to apologize first  for not sharing before they eat. But those cases are rare since everyone shares. If you had something to eat you shared. My understanding of that was, you don’t know who is hungry and to save people the indignity of asking for food you just offer it.  I have shared food with mamas selling coffee on the street, street traders, different families, domestic workers, and even sex workers.  I ate much less than I do now but I felt fuller and happier, without intending to, just by sharing.

SO THAT’S WHAT’S MISSING

I must admit that even I could not have imagined sharing to be the answer to all our  dietary  problems. I mean seriously? Something so simple right?  So while the amount of fat in your food, GMO content, how much you eat, how you eat it and with whom you eat can contribute towards your health,  eating alone is the biggest factor which contributes to this ‘full but empty’ phenomena which causes people to eat but feel unsatisfied and eat more than they need to.  We only have to look at the American lifestyle that prizes “individual happiness” above community. They are the fattest nation on earth.

The emptiness can not be eroded by more food because it’s not the food that is the problem but what you do with it.  When it comes to South African politicians their problem is understandable:  Their works is largely desk based,  they don’t use up as much energy as they consume and more over one person will eat the same amount of food in one sitting  which a family of ten people in Senegal would share at dinner. One would have to be a construction worker lifting boulders and boulders of rock or some physically strenuous job to eat that much food or spend most of the day doing physical labour which is not the case. Maybe the parliamentarians are depressed ( depression can cause people to eat more), or unhappy or bored with the work they do, so they overcompensate by eating – because something is missing. Eating something with lots of sugar and fat is the quickest ways to get that instant gratification feeling.

Eating is also linked to our emotions.  So it stands to reason that they would increase in size. In fact people in Senegal often joke with each other when they see a man (especially) or woman who has bulging stomach. They say “oh so we see you eat alone these days huh?” Once people get high paying jobs, they start to blow up and become disfigured from eating too much on their own and then end up  paying loads of money for gym memberships and diets they never use.  Eating to fill a gap that food can never fill.

If you eat with others you are unlikely to want more than your  fair share  of what is on the plate. It causes one to be accountable. The eating process is transparent. Everyone sees what everyone else is eating. You will be more likely to consider others around you who are eating from the same plate as you. I know what you are thinking… this will take time but wait…

Haven’t  you noticed how old or  new lovers often without thinking tend to eat from each other’s plates almost subconsciously.. when people are in what we call love, children (toddlers do this too) they want to share more of themselves and more of what they have with others  and food is one of the first places where the sharing happens. So while we all do eat alone at some point by choice or circumstance – we are happier and “fuller” when eat together in the company of  others, and we are more likely to  be filled by much less food if we eat from the same plate.

BRING BACK:  LOVE TO THE DINNER TABLE

Now there are always exceptions to every opinion and rule but I think psychologically we are more satisfied with our lives when we can share ourselves with others,  the  little we have becomes more when we break bread with others. If we do this from an understanding that each person needs food as much as you do and the subtle truth we are not made “full” by bread alone,  that we are  happier together than  apart, even if the only time we are together is when we eat unless we recognize the value in sharing:  the food we eat in the privacy of our own homes or restaurants eventually becomes poison.

The  Senegalese (West African way of eating) is not a new Phenomena in Africa or globally for that matter, we just stopped sharing and because of that we have become increasingly bloated, full but empty. There are many things one can do to cure this, but the most simplest of them all is to just share – the most happiest diet on the market and it’s for free. Share. Partage. It’s natural, it’s in our nature to share.  If  I were president  this would be my state of the nation address today. Sharing heals.