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Posts tagged ‘Woolworths’

Not in my trolley

This has not been a particularly edifying week for white South Africans. After an angry blog post about Woolworths’s hiring policies went viral, a surprisingly large group of white people have threatened to boycott the supermarket. Woolies – an upmarket food-and-clothing store similar to Marks and Spencer in the UK – notes in some of its job advertisements that certain positions are available only to black candidates.

Pierre de Vos, Professor of constitutional law, points out that this is ‘neither illegal nor unconstitutional.’ The purpose of the measure is to address the absence of black South Africans in particular categories of jobs. The company has not introduced a moratorium on hiring whites, and whites may still apply for jobs advertised as being aimed specifically at black candidates.

In a magnificent riposte to the white loons threatening never to shop again at Woolworths – in the strange belief that other supermarkets don’t have similar hiring policies (they do) – Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, explained:

Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk. That was the expected, the planned outcome for people like me. The system was called apartheid. We needed help to escape our destiny and millions of South Africans still need that help.

It is not reverse racism, but a Constitutional imperative to fix our society. …those of you who spammed the Woolies CEO for applying the law are wrong. You discount, completely, the role of inter-generational privilege in your life.

To make a good future society demands we have make-right policies for the old one. It doesn’t fix itself.

I doubt that the boycott will have any effect on Woolies’ sales this year. The satirical site Hayibo summed up middle-class South Africans’ relationship with the store particularly well:

‘I will never shop at Woolies again, until later this afternoon when I will go and get salmon and malva pudding,’ said one irate shopper.

Indeed.

As this was a lost opportunity to have a constructive discussion about affirmative action and economic empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa – two issues always worth thinking about – this also represents a moment to think about the nature and effects of consumer boycotts.

I was particularly amused by this threatened whites-only boycott because of the impact that international boycotts had on apartheid South Africa. The country’s economy was brought to its knees after the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law in the US, preventing American businesses and banks from exporting and importing some commodities to and from South Africa, and investing in, and extending loans to, the country. Sport and cultural boycotts accompanied these sanctions.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain originated as a boycott campaign against South African produce in 1959. It organised boycotts of Cape Fruit, Outspan oranges, and a range of other products, as well as of businesses like Barclays and Total which operated in South Africa. Even if this campaign – and others around the world – didn’t pose as much as a threat to the apartheid state as the sanctions of the 1980s, what they achieved was to make ordinary people aware of apartheid by appealing to them not to support the South African economy.

There seems to have been an increase in this kind of political consumer boycott since the 1980s, and probably as a result of a heightened awareness of the connection between the exercise of political power and the emergence of global corporations. One of the best – and most successful – examples of these was the Nestle Boycott organised by War on Want and other groups in 1977, to draw attention to the link between the marketing of infant formula and high rates of child mortality in the developing world.

But political consumerism and consumer boycotts have existed long before then. In fact, the abolitionist movement has been described as one of the first examples of concerted consumer activism in support of a political cause. Not only could early opponents to slavery buy abolitionist-themed crockery from Wedgwood, but, particularly during the nineteenth century, abolitionists all over the world refused to buy American sugar or cotton.

Lawrence B. Glickman writes:

consumer activism – the attempt to mobilise consumers for political purposes – has been important to American political culture at least since the Boston Tea Party. Indeed…American national identity was forged in no small part through collective acts of consumption. Central to African American claims for political and economic inclusion have been demands for…‘consumer entitlement,’ ranging from boycotting Jim Crow street cars to taking advantage of the ‘autonomy and anonymity’ of catalogue shopping as a way of avoiding mistreatment by merchants, to boycotting tourism in South Carolina as a way of protesting the Confederate flag that until recently flew over the state house. Similarly…among many women in the Progressive Era ‘consumer consciousness built political consciousness’ as they boycotted unsafe and costly food and campaigned for minimum wages and decent labour standards for those who produced what they bought.

It’s striking how frequently consumer boycotts have been used by those who are politically and socially marginalised, to demand equal treatment and an end to discrimination. They were a key strategy in the American Civil Rights movement, and featured to some extent in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid legislation in the early 1950s, and, later, during the township rebellion in the 1980s.

Some of the earliest consumer boycotts in the United States and Britain were organised by women, and usually in response to sudden increases in the price of staple foods. For instance, in 1902, immigrant Jewish women in New York organised a boycott after the price of Kosher beef increased by half. By withdrawing their support from local butchers – and, admittedly, rioting in lower Manhattan – they managed to reduce prices.

In 1924 and 1933, Jewish women in Toronto – many of them members of communist groups – also organised boycotts of Kosher butchers to protest rising prices of meat. On both occasions, significant numbers of women were mobilised not only to stop shopping for meat, but to picket butchers.

Indeed, there were widespread boycotts organised by women during the Great Depression. These ‘housewives’ protests’ were part of a broader movement in which women sought to mitigate the effects of the Depression by lobbying government, planting community gardens, establishing bartering systems for food and other goods, and even engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In Cleveland, for instance, black mothers protested a power company’s decision to switch off electricity as a result of non-payment of bills, by hanging wet washing over the power lines. The electricity was switched on the next day.

In 1946, the Washington Committee for Consumer Protection was formed by a group of women – including some who had been active in union politics during the 1930s – to organise boycotts of red meat and other products to protest the increase in food prices at the end of the Second World War. (The American government had kept them artificially low during the conflict.) Other committees organised boycotts of milk and dairy products for similar reasons.

Boycotts demonstrate particularly well that buying power – and the exercise or withholding of this power – seems to function as a replacement of real access to political power for those who are socially marginalised.

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that there’s an equivalence between the heroic housewives of 1930s America and the white nitwits who are trying – and probably failing – to organise a boycott of Woolworths. But I do think that the rage which has propelled this boycott suggests that there is a section of South Africa’s white population which feels – with some justification – that its interests are not being represented by mainstream political parties. And this is worth taking seriously.

Further Reading

Monroe Friedman, ‘American Consumer Boycotts in Response to Rising Food Prices: Housewives’ Protests at the Grassroots Level,’ Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 18 (1995), pp. 55-72.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘“Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,’ American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 889-912.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture,’ The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1 (Jun., 2001), pp. 99-128.

Matthew Hilton, ‘The Female Consumer and the Politics of Consumption in Twentieth-Century Britain,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 103-128.

Stacy Kinlock Sewell, ‘The “Not-Buying Power” of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964,’ The Journal of African American History, vol. 89, no. 2, African Americans and the Urban Landscape (Spring, 2004), pp. 135-151.

Annelise Orleck, ‘“We Are That Mythical Thing Called the Public”: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,’ Feminist Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 147-172.

Kathleen C. Schwartzman, ‘Can International Boycotts Transform Political Systems? The Cases of Cuba and South Africa,’ Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 43, no. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 115-146.

Andor Skotnes, ‘“Buy Where You Can Work”: Boycotting for Jobs in African-American Baltimore, 1933-1934,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 27, no. 4 (Summer, 1994), pp. 735-761.

Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe, and Michele Micheletti, ‘Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation,’ International Political Science Review, vol. 26, no. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 245-269.

Lynne Taylor, ‘Food Riots Revisited,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 483-496.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Hot Cross Bun Fight

Just before Easter this year, a group of Christians in South Africa objected to the labelling of hot cross buns at Woolworths, a premium supermarket, as halal. Possibly chastened by the furore which erupted over its stocking of Christian magazines a couple of years ago, Woolies apologised. But, wonderfully, the response of the South African public was hilarity: what on earth, asked people on social media and radio chat shows, was wrong with making hot cross buns available to Muslims?

As many pointed out, it would be interesting to see if these Christians also avoided McDonald’s, KFC, Nando’s or any of the other fast food chains which serve halal food. In a country as socially and culturally diverse as South Africa, it makes sense for restaurants and shops to sell halal and kosher products. Most chicken sold in South Africa is halal, for instance.

In fact, the South African Easter meal of choice is pickled fish – a dish developed by slaves brought to the Cape from southeast Asia, India, and elsewhere during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these slaves would have been Muslim, a religion tolerated by the Dutch and, later, British authorities on the grounds that they believed it to be ‘civilised’ and unlikely to encourage slaves to revolt or disobey their masters and mistresses.

So South African Christians eat a dish at Easter which was created by Muslim slaves more than two centuries ago. And even those who are not Christian eat it: we had my Mum’s version of pickled fish on Good Friday – based on a recipe my Great-Grandmother cooked – with pilaf instead of the usual bread-and-butter, and it was delicious.

My Mum's pickled fish

I was interested by the hot cross bun debate because – I think – it’s the first major discussion South Africans have had about the labelling of halal food. Last year there was some controversy about a meat supplier which allegedly sold haram meat as halal, but the debates then were about the regulation of the meat industry, and not about the public’s willingness – or otherwise – to eat halal food.

This ‘storm in a baking pan,’ as Father Chris Townsend of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference put it, was fairly unusual, in international terms, in the way that it was greeted with such widespread condemnation. In France, the first country in Western Europe to ban women from wearing the burqa and niquab in public, the labelling of halal food is now an electoral issue. Concerned by the depressing popularity of far-right loon Marine le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy announced in January that if re-elected, he would enact legislation to ensure that all halal foods are clearly labelled. (You can donate to Francois Hollande’s campaign here.)

Sarkozy justified these new measures – which angered Jewish leaders as well – by implying that the ritual slaughter of animals for halal and, by implication, kosher meat is inhumane. But French Muslims argue that Sarkozy and the French right’s attack on ritual slaughter has less to do with the treatment of animals than it does to broader debates about multiculturalism and social integration in France. As one French blogger commented:

Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen have resorted to this because they have no solutions to the real problems. It’s the last desperate thrashings of a mad dog that has nothing to lose. It’s part of a chain of thought that goes from halal meat to Islamism to terrorism.

This isn’t the only recent debate about the labelling of halal meat and ritual slaughter. Australia and Canada have seen similar discussions, and the Daily Mail seems to specialise in a kind of hysterical journalism which links the widespread availability of halal meat to the end of Britain and the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Religious slaughter is banned in New Zealand, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden. An attempt to enact a similar ban in the Netherland last year was blocked at the last minute.

What makes these debates interesting is that they are hardly new. David Smith writes that in 1995,

a federal German court effectively banned Muslims from slaughtering animals without prior stunning. The court ruled that the practice was not required by their religion and was thus not protected by the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religious expression. In January 2002, however, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the right to freedom of religious expression and choice of occupation did in fact ensure the entitlement of Germany’s Muslims, or at least those responsible for their provision with halal meat, to resume stunningless methods for such ends without the threat of legal action.

In his excellent Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (1995), Sander Gilman explores shifting attitudes towards shehitah, the slaughter of animals in accordance with Judaic law and custom. In the 1880s and 1890s, various campaigns to outlaw shehitah emerged in Europe. In Germany, only Saxony eventually banned shehitah in 1897. While many supporters of the campaign were anti-vivisectionists or were concerned about the treatment of animals in abattoirs, there is no coincidence that this interest in the butchering of kosher meat developed at the same time as a wave of anti-Semitism swept Europe.

In 1883, delegates at a meeting of the Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna argued that the protection of ritual slaughter was an indication of Jewish influence over European politics. But others pointed out that the attempt effectively to ban kosher meat was driven by anti-Semitism. In 1885, the Lord Mayor of London compared the campaign to the allegations around Jewish ritual murder during the medieval period. The liberal Berlin Daily News declared in 1893 that those opposed to ritual slaughter were ‘pure anti-Semites’. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis outlawed ritual slaughter – also in the name of preventing cruelty to animals – during the 1930s.

There is, then, an obvious link between anxiety about religious difference, and even racism, and concerns about ritual slaughter. That said, expressing concern about the ways in which animals are slaughtered should not necessarily immediately be construed as religious or cultural intolerance. Countries need to find a balance between facilitating the religious practices of all their citizens, and the humane treatment of animals.

The South African hot cross bun fight (ahem, sorry) was not, though, about ritual slaughter. The Christians who complained about the labelling of hot cross buns in Woolworths were angry about the association of a Christian symbol – the cross on the bun – with a sticker connected to Islam. Next year, Woolies will sell hot cross buns (without the halal sticker) and spiced buns (with a halal sticker). The buns will be identical, with the exception of a flour-and-water-paste cross on the former.

I don’t know enough about the history of attitudes towards religious slaughter in South Africa to position this incident within a broader, historical context, but there are several examples of religious communities coexisting fairly harmoniously during periods of this country’s past. Most of the butchers in nineteenth-century Cape Town were Muslim, for example. This meant that the majority of Victorian Capetonians ate halal meat, regardless of their religious beliefs.

This incident demonstrates not only the extent to which food is integral to the maintenance of religious identities – which is particularly ironic given the fact that so many of the traditions and rituals we associate with Easter have pagan origins – but that people’s anxieties about religious freedom and identity are frequently played out through debates around food.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

Pablo Lerner and Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, ‘The Prohibition of Ritual Slaughtering (Kosher Shechita and Halal) and Freedom of Religion of Minorities,’ Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 22, no. 1 (2006/2007), pp. 1-62.

David Smith, ‘“Cruelty of the Worst Kind”: Religious Slaughter, Xenophobia, and the German Greens,’ Central European History, vol. 40, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 89-115.

Ellen Wiles, ‘Headscarves, Human Rights, and Harmonious Multicultural Society: Implications of the French Ban for Interpretations of Equality,’ Law & Society Review, vol. 41, no. 3 (Sep., 2007), pp. 699-735.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eat the Rich

Today’s City Press includes a fantastically interesting article about the increased incidence of obesity in post-1994 South Africa. The piece explores the links between the country’s transition to democracy and the fact that 61% of all South Africans – 70% of women over the age of 35, 55% of white men 15 years and older, and a quarter of all teenagers – are obese or overweight.

The reasons for these incredibly high levels of obesity are, as the article acknowledges, complex. In many ways, South Africa conforms to a pattern emerging throughout the developing world. In a report published a few months ago, the World Health Organisation noted that lifestyle-related diseases – like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity – are now among the main causes of death and disease in developing nations. These diseases of affluence are no longer limited to the West.

For the new South African middle classes, fast food and branded processed products, like Coke, are markers of sophistication: of having ‘made it’ in this increasingly prosperous society. But, as in the rest of the world, those at the top of the social scale tend not to be overweight:

contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a ‘rich man’s disease’.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says [Prof Salome] Kruger, that ‘the highest income earners are thinner’.

For urban dwellers who earn less, fresh food is usually more difficult, and expensive, to buy than processed non-food:

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

‘R15!’ It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

We call these areas where access to fresh food is limited, ‘food deserts’. It’s entirely possible to buy fruit, vegetables, and free-range meat in South African cities, but high prices and bad transport infrastructure limit people’s ability to purchase these products.

We’re dealing, effectively, with the effects of mass urbanisation since the ending of influx control in the mid-1980s and the 1994 elections.

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from ‘traditional foods to fast foods’.

But this isn’t the first time that South Africa, or indeed other countries, has had to cope with the impact of urbanisation on people’s diets. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused agricultural workers to abandon farming in their droves, and to move to cities in search of employment, either in factories or in associated industries. In Britain, this caused a drop in the quality of urban diets. Food supplies to cities were inadequate, and the little food that the new proletariat could afford was monotonous, meagre, and lacking in protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the effects of this inadequate diet was a decrease in average height – one of the best indicators of childhood health and nutrition – among the urban poor in Victorian cities. In fact, British officers fighting the South African War (1899-1902) had to contend with soldiers who were physically incapable of fighting the generally fitter, stronger, and healthier Boer forces, most of whom had been raised on diets rich in animal protein.

This link between industrialisation, urbanisation, and a decline in the quality of city dwellers’ diets is not inevitable. For middle-class Europeans in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, industrialised transport and food production actually increased the variety of food they could afford. In the United States, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a burgeoning food industry benefitted poorer urbanites as well. Processed food was cheap and readily available. Impoverished (and hungry) immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy were astonished by the variety and quantity of food they could buy in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.

It’s difficult to identify similar patterns in South Africa. We know that the sudden growth of Kimberley and Johannesburg after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1882) stimulated agriculture in Griqualand West and the South African Republic. Farmers in these regions now supplied southern Africa’s fastest growing cities with food. The expansion of Kimberley and Johannesburg as a result of the mineral revolution was different from that of London or New York because their new populations were overwhelmingly male – on the Witwatersrand, there were roughly ninety men for every woman – and highly mobile. These immigrants from the rest of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States had little intention of settling in South Africa. As a result of this, it’s likely that these urban dwellers weren’t as badly effected by poor diets as their compatriots in the industrialised cities of the north Atlantic.

Cape Town’s slums and squatter settlements were, though, populated by a new urban poor who migrated with their families to the city during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Most factory workers were paid barely enough to cover their rent. Mr W. Dieterle, manager of J.H. Sturk & Co., a manufacturer of snuff and cigars, said of the young women he employed:

It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live. In the mornings they have a piece of bread with coffee, before work. We have no stop for breakfast, but I allow them to stand up when they wish to eat. Very few avail themselves of this privilege. They stay until one o’clock without anything, and then they have a piece of bread spread with lard, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of fish.

This diet – heavy on carbohydrates and cheap stimulants (like coffee), and relatively poor in protein and fresh produce – was typical of the city’s poor. It wasn’t the case that food was unavailable: it was just that urban workers couldn’t afford it.

In fact, visitors to the Cape during this period commented frequently on the abundance and variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat on the tables of the middle classes. White, middle-class girls at the elite Huguenot Seminary in Wellington – a town about 70km from Cape Town – drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt (syrupy grape jam) on their bread for breakfast and supper. A typical lunch consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

It’s also worth noting that the Seminary served its meals during the morning, the middle of the day, and in the evening – something which was relatively new. Industrialisation caused urban workers’ mealtimes to change. Breakfast moved earlier in the day – from the middle of the morning to seven or eight o’clock – lunch (or dinner) shifted to midday from the mid-afternoon, and dinner (or tea) emerged as a substantial meal at the end of the day.

Factory workers in Cape Town ate according to this new pattern as well. The difference was the quality of their diet. A fifteen year-old white, middle-class girl in leafy Claremont who had eaten an ample, varied diet since early childhood was taller and heavier than her black contemporaries in Sturk’s cigar factory. In all likelihood, she would have begun menstruating earlier, and would have recovered from illness and, later, childbirth far more quickly than poorer young women of the same age. She would have lived for longer too.

Urbanisation changes the ways in which we eat: we eat at different times and, crucially, we eat new and different things. By looking at a range of examples from the nineteenth century, we can see that this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The industrial revolution contributed to the more varied and cheaper diets of the middle classes. Industrialised food production and transport caused the urban poor in the United States to eat better than many of those left behind in rural areas, for example. But it’s also clear that it exacerbates social inequality. In the 1800s, the poor had too little to eat and that which they did have was not particularly nutritious. Children raised on these diets were shorter and more prone to illness than those who ate more varied, plentiful, and protein-rich food. Now, the diets available to the poor in urbanising societies are as bad, even if the diseases they contribute to are caused by eating too much rather than too little.

Most importantly, we have an abundance of food in our growing cities. Just about everyone can afford to eat. The point is that only a minority can afford good, fresh food, and have the time, knowledge, and equipment to prepare it. Food mass produced in factories helped Europe and North America’s cities to feed their urban poor a hundred years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the twenty-first century.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

It Sticks in the Throat

Disclaimer: this post concerns the organisers of next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference. At the beginning of July, I noticed that they were beginning work on a food magazine and contacted them about writing for it. We had a brief, yet friendly, correspondence which ended when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to afford the R1500 (about £150) ticket for the Festival. (I see that they’re now selling day tickets to the exhibition and market for R50 each, which is excellent.) So please believe me when I say that this post isn’t a case of sour grapes. Also, it contains some swearing.

This week’s post was supposed to be about food, eating, and ideas around ‘authenticity’ – inspired by an article from Prospect about the end of postmodernism – but I find myself suddenly enraged and can’t think about anything else. This month’s Woolworth’s Taste magazine comes with a free copy of Menu: a publication which accompanies next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference in central Cape Town.

Menu lists Cape Town’s 167 best dishes, and includes short essays on a range of subjects: interviews with local restaurateurs, aspects of southern African cuisine, and the inevitable peon to Elizabeth David. It begins relatively uncontroversially with the usual range of comments of shopping malls having killed our ‘food culture’ and the need to encourage an interest in local cuisines. I’m annoyed by the ignorant, rose-tinted view of the past which informs this kind of thinking, but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about a desire to improve the way people eat. No, my problem is with this:

This issue of Menu magazine compiles some of the best food experiences in the city. The visuals show food dropped on floors at home and in the street, because the best pizza always lands on the floor.

Yes, I know: ‘the best pizza always lands on the floor.’

I’ll wait while you compose yourself.

And so each of the photographs in the magazine depicts food – blobs of ice cream, crisps, bread, salad, and barbequed chicken – dropped on the ground in Cape Town.

A magazine dedicated to promoting the best restaurants in Cape Town, to disseminating information about food in South Africa, and, presumably, to encouraging its readers to eat better – a magazine produced in the midst of a global food crisis where people are starving to death and overthrowing their governments because of a lack of food – includes photographs of wasted food.

This magazine draws attention to the fact that it wasted food in order to create pretty pictures. Seriously?

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MINDS? How was this ever supposed to be a good idea?

Aside from the pretentiousness of the writing and the silliness of the concept, it’s absolutely appalling to promote an awareness of eating good food by throwing it away. I do realise (and hope) that relatively small amounts of food were wasted during the photo shoots, but this isn’t really the point. The magazine seems to suggest that there’s something poetic – or, rather, given its overriding aesthetic, hip – to waste food.

Did you know that we waste a third of our food supply? According to a report published in May by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of the world’s food – food produced for human consumption and which is perfectly good to eat – is wasted or lost. In poor nations, this waste is usually the result of poor infrastructure, where inadequate storage, processing, or packaging facilities fail to keep food fresh and uncontaminated. But in wealthy countries, food waste – and industrialised and developing nations waste roughly the same amount of food (about 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively) – is produced by ordinary people.

The average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year, most of it fruit and vegetables. In sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia – the least developed parts of the world, in others words – this amounts to an average of only 6-11kg of food. People who are poor tend to buy less food and will ensure that they throw away as little of it as possible.

And the proportion of food wasted by Westerners has only increased over the past few decades. Tristram Stuart writes in Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009):

A survey in Britain during the 1930s found that household food waste comprised only 2-3 per cent of the calorific value of food that entered the home. In 1976 waste was apparently only 4-6 per cent, and similar studies in America during the 1960s and 70s found wastage levels of about 7 per cent.

We are now at a stage where rich countries waste 222 million tonnes of food per year – which is only slightly less than the annual food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

At a time when demand for food is only increasing, it’s ludicrous that so much food goes to waste. As the FAO’s report notes, one of the most effective ways of reducing

tensions between the necessary increase in consumption [of food] and the challenging increase in production, is to also promote food loss reduction which alone has a considerable potential to increase the efficiency of the whole food chain. In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.

So what are the implications of throwing away so much food? It means that the limited amount of land available for agriculture is being exploited needlessly. It means that the greenhouse gasses emitted during the production, processing, and transportation of food are done so in vain.

We know that hunger and starvation are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but, rather, by people’s inability to access it. Drought – increasingly the product of climate change – and food speculation all cause the price of food to increase. Wasting food also contributes to this. As a recent study suggests, there is a strong link between this year’s increased incidence in political violence in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and high food prices.

The FAO makes a number of suggestions of how we can reduce waste, and one of them is encouraging Westerners and members of the middle classes in developing nations not to waste food.

These are people who can afford to throw food away. And these are the people who read Menu magazine. The problem with including a celebration of dropped and wasted food is that it indicates a profoundly problematic attitude towards food. Stuart explains:

Throughout the developed world, food is treated as a disposable commodity, disconnected from the social and environmental impact of its production. Most people would not willingly consign tracts of Amazon rainforest to destruction – and yet that is happening every day.

Even if the authors of Menu mean well, their magazine seems to forget that food is not another consumer product like designer clothes or jewellery to be artfully arranged and photographed.

If they really do want to change they ways in which we eat, it’s not enough just to encourage people to eat local cuisines and buy their meat from independent butchers. Not only do we need to throw away less of our food, but we must understand the ecological, social, and even political implications of what we choose to eat – and throw away. The decision to waste food in the name of cool sticks in the throat.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Whose Slow Food?

While I was a PhD student in London I stayed at a really magnificent residence for postgraduate students in Bloomsbury. Our closest supermarket was a Waitrose which distributed leaflets to the local student population every September (the beginning of the academic year in the UK). Their most successful campaign stated simply, ‘Make your Mum happy. Shop at Waitrose.’ I did as I was told, and shopped at Waitrose. And Mum was indeed very happy.

In Britain, admitting that you shop at Waitrose is similar to calling yourself a Guardian reader: it denotes not only class status (Waitrose is very bourgeois), but also a set of values. Waitrose is like Woolworths in South Africa or, to a lesser extent, Trader Joe’s in the United States. It’s a business which has a commitment to stocking ethically-sourced, free range, and organic products and groceries – hence its association with the lefty, greeny, and affluent middle classes.

It does seem to be hypocritical to admit to shopping at Waitrose – or the even more expensive Marks & Spencer, which attracts a slightly different demographic – while vilifying those who depend on budget chains like Tesco in the UK or Shoprite in South Africa. After all, they’re all supermarkets, and it’s clear that supermarkets are responsible for over a million tonnes of wasted food per year in Britain alone; engage in environmentally harmful practices; exploit their employees; stifle small and local producers; destroy communities; and encourage poor eating habits.

But not all supermarkets are the same. Tim Lang, the food policy expert who invented the term ‘food miles’, suggests that one of the best ways of eating responsibly is to shop at supermarkets which preselect their products on ethical lines. So instead of buying free-range beef directly from the farmer (something which very few of us can do, in practical or financial terms), we should – if we can – shop at supermarkets which encourage this kind of farming. And we should place pressure on bigger chains to stock free range eggs and meat.

I love supermarkets. They’re one of the first places I visit when I go to new cities. When I stayed with a friend in Zürich last year I enjoyed the Swiss supermarkets (the yogurt!) almost as much as the Kunsthaus (the Giacometti statues!). Supermarkets tell us things about how a population thinks about its relationship with food.

It’s partly for this reason that I am concerned about the motives of the Slow Food Movement. Founded in Italy in 1986, and as a global organisation three years later, the Slow Food Movement is now a wealthy, international network of ‘convivia’ – or local branches – which encourage a ‘slow’ attitude towards food. Its members are encouraged to cook and to eat slowly, and also to think more carefully about how their food is produced and sold.

With its emphasis on localism and sustainability, Slow Food has, I think, done a great deal of good. It’s one of the forces behind the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets, and I’m particularly impressed by its publicising of the working conditions of farm workers, many of whom are migrants who are exploited ruthlessly by their employers.

The world is certainly a better place for the existence of Slow Food, but I am concerned by two aspects of its manifesto: its enthusiasm for regional food, which I’ll discuss next week, and its argument that we all cooked and ate better in the past. As an interview with the Movement’s founder and chair, Carlo Petrini, notes:

Slow Food launched courses to put consumers in touch with the producers of the food and wine they enjoyed, recreating the umbilical cord that was cut when supermarkets invaded the market place.

Petrini adds:

‘The idea of the modern has been superseded; the challenge today is to return to the small scale, the handmade, to local distribution – because today what we call ‘modern’ is out of date. The crisis we have been facing in the past year is not merely a financial crisis but also a crisis of systems and values. To overcome it we need to change our behaviour.’

Slow Food was founded at a time when McDonalds and the first big supermarkets opened their doors in Italy. It disapproves of supermarkets on the grounds, as Petrini suggested, that they facilitate a ‘fast’ way of living which relies on the consumption of processed food and does not allow for the enjoyment of cooking and eating. Slow Food asks for a return to ‘traditional’ eating patterns which celebrate ‘ancient’ knowledge about food. For all its efforts to think about the future of food, Slow Food seems to build its model of an ideal system on a set of ideas about ‘traditional’ cooking and eating.

As an historian, I am always suspicious of any movement or organisation which demands a return to or rekindling of tradition. Petrini and Slow Food are pretty vague as to which ‘tradition’ – which ‘past’ – they’d like to return. And considering that Slow Food is a global movement, they seem to imply that all countries and regions have a similar, glorious food past which they should revitalise.

I’d like to know how they would propose to do this in South Africa. Even the most cursory overview of life in late nineteenth-century Cape Town suggests that a return to the past isn’t necessarily a great idea. All white, upper middle-class households employed cooks who, although supervised by their mistresses, were responsible for providing families’ meals. These families ate well: meat every day, even if it was reheated meat, with a variety of vegetables, both cooked and raw, starch of some kind, and usually a pudding with tea or coffee. This was an international diet. Visitors to Cape Town and surrounding towns commented that they ate as well – or even better, given the quality of local produce – in these affluent homes as they did at home in Britain or the United States.

Depending on the generosity of the household, servants may have eaten the same as their masters and mistresses, but, more likely, ate scraps from the table. So most of the food in these families was prepared and cooked by employees, many of whom did not share the same good diet.

Middle- and lower-middle-class households would have employed a maid-of-all-work who would have done some cooking, assisted by her mistress. The reason why a cook was such a desirable addition to the household – and cooks were the most expensive servants to employ – was the sheer backbreaking nature of nineteenth-century cooking. Meat was bought in bulk, with the cook or mistress having to cut down a whole or half-carcass of beef, lamb, or pork herself. All baking had to be done on one day per week – leaving little time for the equally laborious weekly laundry – and the lack of refrigeration meant that dairy products had to be used quickly. A spoiled batch of bread on Monday meant no bread for the rest of the week. Want to make a jelly? Well, you’d have to buy calves’ feet, crack them open, and boil them down to create a jelly which could be added to milk or a fruit puree.

‘Malay’ households padded out diets with rice and fish. The bredies and breyanis which we associate with Cape Malay cooking today were reserved for special occasions. Eggs and dairy products were expensive, even for wealthier households. For the poor in Cape Town’s slums, most meals consisted of a starchy staple – maize porridge, rice, or, possibly, bread – along with fish or whatever else could affordably garnish an otherwise unappetising, and not particularly nutritious, meal. And poor households would have had only one main meal.

These are only some of the diets eaten in South Africa during this period, but I’ve used them to demonstrate how difficult it is to define what we mean by a food tradition. Which one of these Capetonian diets should we return? To the one eaten by white, upper-middle class families? If so, should we ask one member of our households to devote her- or himself to the laborious preparation of these meals? This tiny proportion of colonial society ate precisely the kind of diet promoted by the Slow Food Movement – completely locally-sourced and homemade – but it required one person working all day to execute it in its entirety.

Women, in particular, need to take a closer look at Slow Food. We’re the ones who tend – still – to cook for our families, and much of Slow Food’s criticism of contemporary eating rests on a belief that something in the way in which families ate went profoundly wrong during the 1960s and 1970s. The mass entry of women into employment during these decades did mean that eating patterns changed, but I refuse to return to a time when my role would be limited to keeping house. And I can’t, and won’t, employ someone else to do my cooking for me. It’s interesting that Slow Food emerged from Italy, a country with a distinctly bad track record on women’s rights.

It’s for this reason that I think that Slow Food’s opposition to supermarkets is misguided. Of course, and as I’ve noted above, supermarkets do an enormous amount of harm, but they do allow us to feed ourselves affordably and conveniently. To reject them entirely, when so many people rely on them, is not the way to create a sustainable food system. But, possibly more importantly, I disagree with Slow Food’s belief that we need to return to the past to improve the future. We can certainly learn from the past, but this reification of ‘tradition’ can only be dangerous. Who decides which ‘tradition’ we should turn to? And who’ll cook it?

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

S.E. Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

SE Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and Dutch Reformed Evangelicalism in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).

Tim Lang, David Barling, and Martin Caraher, Food Policy: Integrating Health, Environment and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Other sources:

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

Claude Fischer, ‘The “McDonaldisation” of Culture,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 530-547.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (London: Berg, 2004).

Tim Lang and Michael Heasman, Food Wars: The Battle for Mouths, Minds, and Markets (London: Earthscan, 2004).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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