Friday, 15 August 2014

Article: The pickled food jam

Food, as we know, is an essential to life on Earth along with water. For those with a good supply, even the quality of food that we have is also becoming an increasing cause for concern. There seems to be an increasing number of health problems caused by the food industry's well intentioned efforts to provide choice and respond to ailments. Unfortunately the food industry does not seem to be sufficiently medically aware of what problems it causes. We seem to have acquired new ailments beyond obesity in the form of many a previously unheard of allergy and ailment as a result of desire to forever increase food options for flavours. We are familiar with ADHD, wheat intolerance, diabetes and nut allergies, but frankly that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our diverse food intolerances. The dynamics of the food industry involves a tricky balancing act but perhaps where it has let us down most is in encouraging us to eat what can often make us unwell be unwittingly or by design.

"The simple expedient of cooking your own food from raw ingredients
can save your life from wasted time and money from becoming ill." Anon

The cost of food production leaves little room for errors in profit margins and the result is often not very healthy working conditions. The more unhealthy those conditions of work become the less care workers generally take if worked like slaves on inadequate pay. They are just grateful to find work at all and so will often not challenge their employers if something is badly awry as sadly the result is often dismissal. This is important to remedy as processed food protection can all too easily slip into careless ways to jeopardise our safety. This has become a recurring theme in all sectors of work. Employers who do provide safe working environments and conditions and who do respond to reports from workers get tarnished by the bad reputations and practices of those who don't. The food industry is by no means an exception.

Happy staff tend to make more conscientious, dedicated workers which only ever results in standards being raised. We can refuse to buy from known unethical food suppliers who bully staff and suppliers of the raw ingredients. Most of us can afford to buy elsewhere but many cannot. Most people simply don't know which supplier is ethical or safe and which is not. We only seem to have the media to thank for exposing the rogues at present as government departments seem to have overlooked these issues, perhaps because we do not report them enough.

Food quality should always mean that it is safe for consumption which is as much to do with the ingredients used as hygiene standards in which it is prepared or methods of food production. What we use to flavour, colour and preserve food today might well turn out to be damaging to our overall health tomorrow and although it is unlikely to be found to be as damaging as tobacco has proved to be we can't at present rule out the possibility that some things readily available now won't be. Some manufactured foods already seem to include something in them to encourage addictions and anything we consume in excess it likely to cause harm.

Buttering the spread of solutions

The communities in which we live can do much to change these things in a variety of ways. Indeed the entire business sector itself is part of our community and can help. We can lobby for change, we can report problems and we can also help clean things up ourselves. Most supermarkets help charities these days, but some do the minimum they can to improve upon ensuring that staff are adequately trained, paid or fairly treated.

If we want quality devoid of things that may make us unwell, we should be actively seeking it shouldn't we? We can help ourselves and our communities by sourcing food as locally as possible direct from food producers as community groups if we haven't the time, space or knowledge to grow our own. Far from putting big supermarket chains out of business, such an action applies pressure on them to ensure that they provide healthier produce themselves and in turn apply pressure on food manufacturing to ensure all products are sourced and prepared safely for consumption. That's the theory, but it can only work enough people take action do to make changes possible. In short your local supermarket should take some responsibility for the products it stocks it's shelves with. Some endeavour to do so none more notably than social enterprises like the Co-op and Waitrose, others sadly don't because price is the priority ethos above ethics or quality.

What all supermarkets are good at is providing the ingredients for things we cannot easily source locally - sugar  and salt are good examples. They also help sustain the economy of not only our own nation but that of others - I feel it would be rather sad to no longer have the choice of exotic fruit and veg that we have come to enjoy as well as the many flavours of tea, coffee and indeed wine. Every nation can and does grow some of it's own food. It's a lovely concept to think of us all savouring each others produce in a kind a global banquet of culinary treats. The reality of that is nowhere near fruition as some nations have better growing conditions than others. This limits crop diversity and developing countries are a long way short of enjoying the same level of choice that we have in the UK. All nations need to buy and/or sell food though so that that global banquet may yet become a reality.

Food deprived

One of the many ways we've got ourselves into a pickle over food is how there's a huge disparity between those who have too much while others have next to none at all. It strikes me as outrageous that people are struggling so much that they have to rely on food banks and global charities to be able eat at all. People shouldn't have to choose between eating or paying a bill; between eating or having the travel expenses to get to work. Admittedly some people don't help matters by wasting their money on non-essential gadgets and clothes for themselves or too many toys for their children but the most vulnerable in our society do not do this. Our most vulnerable don't even get that far to have such options.

What contributes to my disgust is the amount of waste we produce while others literally starve both here and abroad. In the UK most supermarkets are happy to collect our donated tinned and dried food to food banks to pass on. Some go further to match our donations and donate funds too. (You see they're not all bad). This can result in higher prices and worse working conditions though for supermarkets to make sufficient profit to enable it to compete to survive which is how a vicious chain of events can come into being.

What though of all the food that is not sold or donated? What happens to all the waste and how much is there that we could use to alleviate poverty?

Waste not, want not

Regular followers on twitter will know that this year I've started to grow my own food on an allotment. The more observant will also know that I was in need of food parcels last year too, if only briefly. Part of the reason behind that is that I didn't want to embarrass people I knew but mostly because people could not grasp the reality of people who are seriously ill on benefits. Whenever I can afford to I have always bought a homeless person some food or donated to charities, it was wretched for me not to be able to last year and very strange to learn how demoralising the reality of needing support actually is.

I will never forget that experience, nor will I ever forget the importance of providing help at all levels of need at the same time and to do so consistently. As an individual I cannot feed the planet from my income any more than anyone else can, but if everyone can do something we might just crack this one.

With the right food to enable my health to improve my thinking became clearer as to what I could've done for myself . I could have been more resourceful if I had been fit enough. I could have gone foraging for food, collecting things to eat from hedgerows and from windfalls. I could have asked for windfalls if I'd spotted fruit trees in other people's gardens or for surplus crops from allotments. No one likes a beggar though do they? For most of us to beg is very much a last resort and there is a way to prevent that ever needing to reach that stage.

Collect your windfalls, your surplus crops and make something tasty from them. Alert support agencies of events that enable people to collect the vital food they need. Make jams, chutneys, cordials, pies, bread and cake and swap or sell food. Such schemes are already about, but you have to ferret about to find them. So ask councils about them and if you set up such an initiative ask to display posters and flyers for people to find you. Place them where those in need will find them.

What people need most to improve their health and their state of mind is fresh produce. Food banks are doing an amazing job in helping with dried and tinned goods, some also help with dairy produce and fresh fruit and vegetables BUT you must check with them or any charity you donate to what they will and won't take in to distribute.

It's most odd to me to know that we throw so much food away simply because of it's appearance and to realise that when I was a child there were no best before dates on most things. Now we demand and expect both. We seem so obsessed with appearances and sell by dates that we've driven many a farmer out of business and created a mountain of waste. Luckily many farmers diversify and produce their own pies and pickles to get themselves out of the (pardon the pun) jam. As for appearances, funnily enough a starving person will not care if potatoes are not a uniform colour, size and shape - why indeed should any of us? Food is for eating not for just looking at. Having now gained experience of growing my own crops, I can tell you that once I have peeled away some quite nasty looking outer leaves of cabbages I am rewarded with just as good and tasty a cabbage hidden inside as any I have ever bought in any shop or market.

The name of the game in catering is to keep waste food to a minimum and so it should be for all of us as that way none need starve or risk becoming ill or their health deteriorating through a lack of the vital nutrition we all need to be healthy. Food is not just essential for any person to survive, it is also vital as a safeguard against any form of ill health so long as we educate ourselves about what our very individual metabolisms require.

So there you have it, my recipe for food for all. There is no reason at all why people should go without food in the 21st century if we organise ourselves. We each can and do play a part in food production simply by making choices. It makes financial and 'well being' sense to help each other to get fed. It is not as if any but the nastiest of food manufacturers and employers needs to change their habits that much for all to benefit.

Enjoy your food and make it look appetising by all means, but share that pleasure through being creative in offering practical support to the hungry. Please help make it a reality that none starve and none get treated unfairly over what is after all one of our most basic of needs - food. Thanks.

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