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Posts tagged ‘hunger’

Starved Out

Two years ago today, police opened fire on a group of striking mineworkers encamped on a koppie outside of Marikana. Mainly rock drill operators doing some of the most basic and difficult work on the mine, these men demanded that Lonmin – in whose platinum mine they worked – raise their salary to match that of literate, better skilled miners, to about R12,500 per month.

After weeks of sporadic violence on both sides – during which policemen, shop stewards, and workers were injured and killed – mine bosses urged the police to end the standoff. Jack Shenker writes:

It was the police who escalated the standoff at Marikana mountain, bringing in large numbers of reinforcements and live ammunition. Four mortuary vans were summoned before a single shot had been fired. Lonmin was liaising closely with state police, lending them the company’s own private security staff and helicopters, and ferrying in police units on corporate buses. Razor wire was rolled out by police around the outcrop to cut the miners off from Nkaneng settlement; pleas by strike leaders for a gap to be left open so that workers could depart peacefully to their homes were ignored.

Police opened fire as workers approached them. In the end, thirty-four were killed, seventeen of them at a nearby koppie where it appears that they were shot at close range. The Marikana massacre has been described as post-apartheid South Africa’s Sharpeville. As the inquiry into the events near the mine has revealed, police arrived not to keep order, but, rather, to end the strike through any means possible.

Miners-Shot-Down-March-finalweb-450x640

The poster for Rehad Desai’s documentary on the Marikana massacre, Miners Shot Down.

The killings were followed by a strike – the longest in South African history – until May. Of all the details to emerge in the coverage of life in the platinum belt, the one that seemed to encapsulate the desperation of striking miners and their families was in a 2006 report commissioned by Lonmin: researchers had discovered children suffering from kwashiorkor near the mine.

Although already identified in 1908, kwashiorkor was named by Dr Cicely Williams, a Colonial Medical Officer, in the Gold Cost during the 1930s. Tom Scott-Smith explains:

she noticed a recurring set of symptoms amongst children who were aged between one and four: oedema in the hands and feet, darkening and thickening of the skin followed by peeling, and a reddish tinge to the hair in the worst cases. There was a clear pattern in the incidence of this disease, since it occurred in children who had been weaned onto low-protein, starchy foods such as maize, after being displaced from the breast by a younger sibling. Williams’ description first appeared in print in 1933, and two years later she identified the condition by its name in the local language: kwashiorkor, the ‘disease of the deposed child’.

Williams diagnosed kwashiorkor as a from of inadequate nutrition – similar to pellagra, which is caused by a diet insufficient in vitamin B3 – related specifically to an intake of too little protein. Williams had noticed that newly weaned babies and young children – the ‘deposed’ children referred to by the word kwashiorkor – were particularly vulnerable to the condition, and surmised that longer breastfeeding or a diet rich in the nutrients non-breastfed children lacked – protein especially – would eradicate kwashiorkor.

By the 1970s, though, doctors argued that this emphasis on protein supplements – which had driven United Nations and other organisations’ efforts to address kwashiorkor – was incorrect. Kwashiorkor, they argued, was the product of under nutrition: of not consuming enough energy. Scott-Smith writes:

Evidence from the 1960s demonstrated that a less protein-rich, more balanced diet could cure kwashiorkor equally well, and by the 1970s a number of other causes for the disease were suggested – even today, the details of kwashiorkor are still not fully understood.

Had scientists paid closer attention to the name ‘kwashiorkor’ they may have come to this realisation sooner. It is a disease of poverty where adults are unable to provide weaned children with adequate nutrition. As a result, its solution is distressingly simple: better and more food.

If there is any indicator of the extent of poverty in the platinum belt, then it is the fact that children suffer from kwashiorkor. While Lonmin has ploughed some of its profits back into communities surrounding the mines – opening schools and running feeding schemes, for example – it remains the case that mineworkers and their families are still desperately poor.

Keith Breckenridge argues that the wealth generated by workers operating in exceptionally dangerous conditions is channelled largely to a small group of beneficiaries. He adds:

Under the current arrangements in the platinum belt there is almost no movement of resources from mining to the wider problem of maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of the general population working in the mines. Mine managers have retreated from maintaining order and health in the hostels, and they have ceded control over the key human resource questions – employment and housing – to union officials and their allies. Like foreign shareholders and local royalty owners, these union leaders, using their monopoly over jobs and housing, have tapped into the demand for employment to enrich themselves (often at the expense of the working and living conditions of union members). Local government – caught between the mines and the prerogatives of tribal authorities – has all but abandoned the project of regulating the living spaces around the mines.

Where once miners were coralled into the prison-like conditions of single-sex hostels where their food, accommodation, and other expenses were covered by mining companies, now meagre housing allowances are meant to support these workers and their families in the otherwise badly provisioned and serviced towns and villages in the platinum belt. Salaries tend to go straight to pay interest on loans granted by micro lenders, charging exorbitant interest rates.

As the incidences of kwashiorkor reported to Lonmin suggest, these men were not earning enough to feed themselves and their children. While under cross examination at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre, Cyril Ramaphosa – current Deputy President and Lonmin board member who had emailed the then-Police Minister, demanding an end to the workers’ strike – remarked:

The responsibility has to be collective. As a nation, we should dip our heads and accept that we failed the people of Marikana, particularly the families, the workers, and those that died.

I dispute the ‘we,’ Mr Deputy President.

Further Reading

Keith Breckenridge, ‘Marikana and the Limits of Biopolitics: Themes in the Recent Scholarship of South African Mining,’ Africa, vol. 84 (2014), pp. 151-161.

Keith Breckenridge, ‘Revenge of the Commons: The Crisis in the South African Mining Industry,’ History Workshop Journal Blog, 5 November 2012.

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

Ideal Conditions

Earlier this month it was announced that the sport scientist turned diet guru Tim Noakes is in talks with Derek Carstens, former First Rand executive and now Karoo farmer, about improving the diets of farm workers. The Cape Times reported:

Once the project begins, the families on the farm will be monitored for five to 10 years. With a diet high in offal – which is readily available in the farmlands of the Karoo – the families will stop consuming carbohydrates, which Noakes says are of no benefit to the human body.

‘This is an ideal set-up,’ said Noakes. ‘And it would be much harder to do research of this nature in a place like Cape Town.’

Since the emergence of nutrition as a field of scientific enquiry in the early twentieth century, the poor, the hungry, and the socially and politically disenfranchised have often been the subjects of research into diet and malnutrition. Last year, University of Guelph-based food historian Ian Mosby published evidence that during the 1940s and 1950s, scientists working for the Canadian government conducted a series of experiments on malnourished residents of rural Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

Rural impoverishment in the 1930s – brought about by the decline in the fur trade and cuts to government provision of poor relief – meant that First Nations people struggled to find enough to eat. They could not, in other words, afford to eat, and this knowledge informed the advice they provided to researchers for eradicating malnutrition. Mosby writes:

Representatives of the various First Nations visited by the research team proposed a number of practical suggestions for ending the hunger and malnutrition in their communities. In addition to more generous relief during times of extreme hardship, these included increased rations for the old and destitute, timber reserves to be set aside for the building and repairing of houses, and additional fur conservation efforts by the federal government, as well as a request that they be given fishing reserves ‘so that they could get fish both for themselves and for dog feed, free from competition with the large commercial fisheries.’

However, researchers decided to set up an experiment in which First Nations peoples were provided with vitamin supplements to gauge their relative effectiveness in combating the side effects of hunger. Crucially, researchers were well aware that ‘vitamin deficiencies constituted just one among many nutritional problems.’ In fact, they calculated that the average diet in these communities provided only 1,470 calories per person during much of the year.’ First Nations people needed food supplies, not vitamin supplements. Mosby concludes:

The experiment therefore seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human ‘experimental subjects.’

In other areas, researchers regulated what kinds of food Aboriginals could purchase with their welfare grants (the Family Allowance):

These included canned tomatoes (or grapefruit juice), rolled oats, Pablum [baby food], pork luncheon meat (such as Spork, Klick, or Prem), dried prunes or apricots, and cheese or canned butter.

This experiment was also an attempt to persuade First Nations people to choose ‘country’ over ‘store’ foods. They were to hunt and to gather instead of relying on shops. To these ends, some officials tried to prevent some families from buying flour:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the subjects of these research projects consented to being part of them.

In South Africa, anxiety about the productivity of mine workers in the 1930s drove the publication of a series of reports into the health of the African population. Diana Wylie explains:

The Chamber of Mines in particular was alarmed at the 19 per cent rejection rate for Transkei mine recruits. Some of the researchers urged the government to concern itself with nutritional diseases ‘as an economic problem of first importance in which not merely the health but the financial interests of the dominant races are concerned.’ Another warned, ‘unless a proper food supply is assured, our biggest asset in the Union, next to the gold itself, our labour supply, will fail us in the years to come.’

In response to these findings, mining companies introduced supplements to miners’ diets to combat scurvy and generally boost immune systems. They did not, obviously, address the causes of miners’ ill health and poor diets – which were partly the impoverishment of rural areas and the system of migrant labour.

Mine workers in Kimberley.

Mine workers in Kimberley. (From here.)

The Canadian experiments and South African research projects were produced by a similar set of concerns: by an interest in civilising indigenous people, but also because, in the case of Canada, ‘it [was their] belief that the Indian [sic] can become an economic asset to the nation.’ Africans also needed to be well fed and kept healthy for the benefit of the South African state.

Noakes is correct when he says that conducting the research he proposes to do on rural farm workers would be almost impossible in a city. Although he insists that he will seek ethics approval, I wonder how he and other researchers will go about winning the informed consent of a group of people who are dependent on their employer – Noakes’s collaborator – for their livelihoods, and who have, historically, very low levels of education.

Also, Noakes seems to believe that only carbohydrates are at the root of farm labourers’ poor diets. As the First Nations people referred to above argued, malnutrition is caused by an inability to access good, nutritious food – and usually because of low wages. Instead of feeding Carstens’s employees offal, it might be worth considering how much they are paid, and how easy it is for them to afford transport to shops selling healthy food.

Noakes argues that ‘We can’t build this nation in the absence of sufficient protein and fat.’ To what extent is this project purely for the benefit of Karoo farm workers? And to what extent to prove a controversial theory proposed by a prominent researcher?

Sources

Ian Mosby, ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,’ Histoire Sociale/Social History, vol. 46, no. 91 (May 2013), pp. 145-172.

Diana Wylie, ‘The Changing Face of Hunger in Southern African History, 1880-1980,’ Past and Present, no. 122 (Feb. 1989), pp. 159-199.

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

This Little World

Like so many children on the former fringes of empire, much of my imaginative life was spent abroad: the England of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, I Capture the Castle, and, later, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, and Woolf. I discovered Australia through My Brilliant Career, Canada in Margaret Atwood’s novels, and America in Little Women.

During a period when nearly every one of Austen’s novels was being made and re-made for film and television, I think I spent most of the mid-nineties somewhere in 1811. But at the same time as reading the nineteenth century, I was consumed with enthusiasm for Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books: a series set in Thatcher and then Blair’s Britain, which chart not only Adrian’s agonisingly hilarious development from the age of 13¾ to middle age, but the politics, preoccupations, and often, injustices of the period.

In some ways, Jane Eyre – mad wife in the attic and all – was, initially, easier to understand than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾: I had never heard of The Archers, the dole, the Co-Op, The Morning Star, or Melvyn Bragg. Sue Townsend died this week, and I’ve been reminded over and over again how much my knowledge of ordinary life – in council estates, in unfashionable parts of the midlands – in 1980s and 1990s Britain comes from Adrian’s secret diaries. She made ‘the little world’ of Adrian’s England – and he is supremely parochial – open up to a reader very far away.

Townsend had an eye for telling detail: the object or event that somehow managed to sum up a particular moment in time. Often, she did this through food. At the beginning of the Mole series, we come across Adrian learning to cook. As his mother embraces feminism – his first diary is written in the early 1980s – the family relies increasingly on boil-in-the-bag instant meals, then a relatively new convenience food. Bert Baxter, the communist-sympathising, irascible pensioner for whom Adrian cares periodically, will only eat Vesta curries, the first commercially available Indian food in Britain.

Adrian Mole

As the books move closer to the present, so food plays an ever more important role – mirroring, to some extent, middle-class Britain’s embrace of foodie-ism. In The Cappuccino Years – in which Adrian drinks at least three cappuccinos, that drink so emblematic of Blair’s Cool Britannia, per day – he works as a chef at the coolest restaurant in London: Hoi Polloi. The point of the restaurant is that it serves up the cheap instant food slowly being rejected as Britain rediscovers (or reinvents) its culinary heritage: he makes lumpy Bird’s Eye custard, heats up Fray Bentos pies, and serves instant coffee. Despite the fact that the food is – by Adrian’s admission – appalling and vastly overpriced, it is the place to be seen, particularly by New Labour politicians.

After its closure, Adrian becomes an early celebrity chef on a show called Offally Good! It also receives terrible ratings, and it’s only because his mother steps in at the last minute that he’s able to write a book – which sells next to nothing – based on the series.

Despite the fact that the Mole books are so deeply embedded in their social and political contexts, they are, I think, unlikely to date, and partly because they are informed by Townsend’s politics: her outrage at Thatcher’s attempts to roll back the welfare state; her disgust at the cynicism and duplicity of Labour under Blair and Brown. She is particularly good at depicting the slow slide into financial trouble, and then poverty: when bureaucratic bungling prevents Adrian’s mother – on her own and with two children to support – from collecting her welfare payment, the family reduces how much it eats.

Although this section of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole is very funny – the situation is only resolved after his mother calls a local radio station and a stand-off ensues at the social security office – it was based on Townsend’s own experiences of poverty in Britain in the early 1980s: of having to cook her children a soup made of an Oxo cube and tinned peas when her welfare money was delayed.

She wasn’t the only writer of books for children and young people who describes hunger and poverty: I Capture the Castle notes, carefully, how the Mortmain family’s diet shrinks to bread, margarine, and the occasional egg during their worst period of hardship. The March sisters gladly give up their Christmas feast so that a poor immigrant family may eat. Jane Eyre’s depiction of pupils’ slow starvation in a sadistically run school is one of the most shocking passages in nineteenth-century fiction.

The difference, I think, with Townsend is that, despite some of her characters being able to pull themselves out of poverty, all the Mole books hint at the precariousness of prosperity: while we know that Cassandra Mortmain will never really starve, that all will be well when Mr March returns, and that Jane will eventually leave the school, Townsend’s politics never really allow her to make her readers feel that comfortable about her characters’ prospects.

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

Hope is a good breakfast

Forty-five years ago, the Black Panther Party (BPP) established a programme for free school breakfasts in a church in Oakland, California. By  1970, the following year, similar projects were being run by local chapters of the BPP across the United States, feeding thousands of school-age children a breakfast which included orange juice, eggs, bacon, toast, and grits.

These breakfast clubs were only one manifestation of the Panthers’ extensive social welfare programmes, which ranged from the provision of healthcare and legal aid, to anti-drugs projects. As Alondra Nelson has argued, these projects have gone largely unremembered

due to a failure of our collective memory. We tend to remember the Black Panther Party through iconography – the symbol of the black panther borrowed from civil rights activists in Alabama and other idiosyncratic political art; the graphic identity the organization established with its newspaper, The Black Panther; and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture.

However, the BPP’s ‘survival programmes’ were integral to its wider political aims.

The first group to take the name ‘Black Panther’ was founded in Alabama in 1965, partly by the civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael. This all-black group inspired the formation of similar organisations elsewhere, and particularly in Harlem, where young African-Americans were influenced by Carmichael’s waning enthusiasm for the civil rights movement’s embrace of non-violent protest, and his formulation of a ‘Black Power’ political programme.

The most influential of these Black Panther groups was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Armed with rifles and other weapons, the initial focus of the Oakland chapter was on defending the local African-American community against the police department. However, and despite fierce and occasionally debilitating infighting within the movement, the BPP soon developed a radical vision for the political, social, and economic upliftment of African Americans.

The Black Panther Party's Free Breakfasts for Children Programme (from http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/counterculture/liberation/blackpanther/blackpanther.html)

The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfasts for Children Programme (from the British Library)

The BPP’s Ten-Point Programme established a revolutionary agenda which, among others things, demanded equality before the law, an end to police brutality, and social rights: housing, employment, education, and ‘bread’. Creating what was, effectively, a welfare system for poor and disenfranchised African-Americans was the logical outcome of this programme. Father Earl Neil, at whose church the breakfast project was founded, remembered:

the party was focused on developing further points of their ten- point programme, and one of the things that Bobby [Seale] and Huey [Newton] used to ruminate about and discuss, is that when they went to school and then they noticed a lot of the children go to school hungry, so there was the idea of starting a breakfast programme. … We started out with 11 youngsters, and by the end of the week it was up to around 140. We didn’t need to advertise, we just had to say ‘Do you want a free breakfast?’ Of course the word spread.

Although the US Department of Agriculture had piloted a free breakfasts programme in 1966, its reach was fairly limited. Because the BPP’s project was run by individual chapters of the Party – and it was soon compulsory for each branch of the BPP to have its own breakfast programme – it was able to reach the very poorest African-American children, particularly in urban areas. The success of the programme soon drew the attention of the FBI, which labelled both free breakfasts and the BPP ‘communists’. In 1969 an FBI memo argued:

You state that the bureau should not attack programs of community interest such as the BPP ‘Breakfast for Children Programme.’ … You have obviously missed the point. The BPP is not engaged in the program for humanitarian reasons. This program was formed by the BPP … to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.

Although police and FBI agents attempted to disrupt this and other survival programmes – even assassinating Fred Hampton, one of the BPP’s key organisers in Chicago – these efforts served only to draw support to the Free Breakfast Programme. Much to the chagrin of the FBI, one imagines, in 1975 Congress rolled out a fully funded, nation wide free breakfast programme, modelled, to some extent, on the one pioneered by the Panthers.

I am writing this shortly after South Africa’s Human Rights Day, held annually to recommit the country to upholding citizens’ human rights, and also to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. In a particularly ugly juxtapositioning, on the day before Human Rights Day, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, announced the findings of her investigation into renovations done to President Zuma’s private homestead in the rural KwaZulu-Natal village of Nkandla. She found, to no-one’s surprise, that millions of public funds were spent on upgrading his home – so much, in fact, that she argued that no single individual would ever be able to pay back that amount of money to the state.

Madonsela drew attention to the fact that spending on several of the additions to Zuma’s home – including a swimming pool, helicopter pads, amphitheatre, cattle kraal, and clinic – was justified on the grounds that these amenities would be to the benefit of the impoverished community in Nkandla. However:

Accessing the clinic would mean entering Zuma’s homestead, either by scaling the security fence or through a police checkpoint. The swimming pool has never been used by the local residents. The clinic remains without stock….

When the Mail and Guardian first reported on the development of the Nkandla homestead it added that a vegetable garden had been planted to ensure the ‘food security’ of the compound. In a country where around one fifth of all children have stunted growth because of poor nutrition, fencing off a vegetable garden seems particularly callous.

It is certainly true that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Programme was ideologically driven (and that its roll-out and operation reflected the ingrained misogyny in the BPP (breakfast programmes were run mainly by women)), but it was part of a vision for remaking American society that recognised that the fight for civil rights had to be accompanied by demands for social rights. In other words, desegregating schools had to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all children had access to the resources, like breakfast and books and transport, which would allow them to participate fully in education.

Sources

David J. Garrow, ‘Picking up the Books: The New Historiography on the Black Panther Party,’ Reviews in American History, vol. 35, no. 4 (Dec. 2007), pp. 650-670.

Nik Heynen, ‘Bending the Bars of Empire from Every Ghetto for Survival: The Black Panther Party’s Radical Antihunger Politics of Social Reproduction and Scale,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 99, no. 2 (2009), pp. 406-422.

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Yohuru Williams, ‘“Some abstract thing called freedom”: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 22, no. 3, Black Power (Jul. 2008), pp. 16-21.

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

Closing the Stable Door

About a month ago, the ever-amazing Bill Nighy argued in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Independent that hunger – whatever we may mean by that – could be eradicated by forcing big multinationals to pay their taxes. Nighy, who is a spokesman for the anti-hunger If Campaign, has a point. As a Guardian investigation demonstrates, these global businesses and their subsidiaries go out of their way not to pay their taxes – something which hits developing nations particularly hard:

The Zambian sugar-producing subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a FTSE100 company, contributed virtually no corporation tax to the state’s exchequer between 2007 and 2012, and none at all for two of those years.

The firm, Zambia Sugar, has recently posted record pre-tax profits and its huge plantation is increasing its capacity to produce more sugar for markets in Europe and Africa. Yet it paid less than 0.5% of its $123m pre-tax profits in corporation tax between 2007 and 2012.

The company benefits from generous capital allowance and tax-relief schemes in Zambia, but the investigation also found that it funnels around a third of its pre-tax profits to sister companies in tax havens, including Ireland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. Tax treaties between Zambia and some of those countries mean the state’s revenue authorities are unable to charge their normal tax on money leaving their shores.

If businesses like Associated British Food paid their taxes in countries like Zambia, then, the logic goes, these governments would have enough money to ensure that everyone would have access to enough food.

But tax evasion has implications for everyone’s food supply, and not only those who live in low- to middle-income countries. As the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe shows, the presence of horsemeat in ready meals and fast food products was partly the work of a network of businesses which managed to evade both (admittedly shambolic) regulators and tax by operating through scrutiny-free offshore companies.

Romanian horsemeat entered the European food chain when meat from two abattoirs was sold to Draap Trading Limited, which sold the meat to European food companies, like the meat processor Spanghero – whose licence was suspended earlier this month after being accused of knowingly mislabelling horsemeat as beef in some of its products.

Draap Trading Limited operates in the Netherlands, but is registered in tax-flexible Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, another tax haven. Not only does this arrangement allow Draap to avoid paying tax, but it becomes almost impossible to identify Draap’s shareholder. Investigators suggest that the shareholder may be linked to a collection of Russia-linked offshore companies which have, in the past, been involved in high-profile transactions in Russian industry. Importantly, there are allegations that these businesses are connected to gang activity.

Exciting as these revelations may be, this is certainly not the first time that food adulteration has been linked to organised crime. In Italy, write Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna:

The Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ’Ndrangheta have long sought to gain a foothold in the fruit and vegetable market, which is one of the most profitable markets in southern Italy. Police investigations over the past two years indicate that mafia families are beginning to have a presence in every stage of the agricultural market – from production to transport. The illegal activities are numerous and market distortion is fundamentally based on the monopoly to transport and distribution in the south, but the phenomenon is widespread across Italy.

The clans have been entering every stage of production – from cultivating products to transporting goods to local markets. It is a business that involves approximately 150 different crimes every day, according to SOS Impresa (an association of Italian business owners created to combat organised crime) and an estimated one third of farmers are affected by this.

Crimes include ‘theft of machinery and tools; extortion; the theft of livestock and cattle; unregulated butchery practices; fraudulent claims for EU funds; and the exploitation of labour.’ These have appalling consequences for the environment, employment practices, and, indeed, food safety – particularly because the clans not only ignore regulations around hygiene and animal welfare, but are also involved in the illegal butchering and trafficking of potentially contaminated meat.

In the US, the Mafia and pizzerias have a long and complicated relationship. Between 1985 and 1987, the Pizza Connection Trial revealed that mobsters had used a collection of pizza parlours as fronts for the sale and collection of heroin and cocaine. Throughout the twentieth century, though, the mob controlled supplies of ingredients to pizzerias. For instance,

Al Capone – who owned a string of dairy farms near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin – forced New York pizzerias to use his rubbery mob cheese, so different from the real mozzarella produced … in New York City since the first immigrants from Naples arrived in Brooklyn around 1900.

As the story goes, the only places permitted to use good mozzarella made locally were the old-fashioned pizza parlours like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and John’s, which could continue doing so only if they promised to never serve slices. … Apparently, neighbourhood pizzerias that served slices and refused to use Capone’s cheese would be firebombed.

As the connection between organised crime and food is nothing new, so is the link between food and tax evasion. Nicholas Shaxson begins his excellent Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011) with an account of the incredible wealth and power of the Vestey brothers. These two men controlled the meat industry during the early twentieth century. Ian Phimister explains:

Prior to 1914, Vesteys had interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar. The company also owned ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat which they use largely for their own trade. Major expansion occurred, however, primarily after the war when in 1922 they absorbed the British and Argentine Meat Company. Vesteys had previously owned over 3,000 butcher shops in England, and the take-over added between 800 and 900 shops to that total. Overall, it was thought that the ‘deal gave Vesteys control over one-quarter of the Argentine export trade.’ On the other side of the world, Vesteys leased 20 million acres in northern Australia where they ran 300,000 cattle. Generally speaking, these were low-grade animals, but their low cost of production gave Vesteys a competitive selling edge, especially during the Great Depression when beef prices collapsed. There were no rail charges because cattle were ‘walked’ to the freezing works, and labour costs were the envy of even South Rhodesia: ‘they employ about 200 aborigines who do not seem to have advanced as far as our natives – at any rate they are only starting to ask for money wages.’

Essentially, Vesteys owned every link in the food chain: from the land on which cattle were farmed, to abattoirs and newly-invented cold storage warehouses, to refrigerated ships and the butchers who sold the meat to shoppers in Britain. But they didn’t limit themselves to beef: they shipped eggs, chicken, ducks, pork, and dairy products from China and Russia, as well as mutton from Australia and New Zealand.

What the example of Vesteys demonstrates – above all – is that big food multinationals have existed since the early twentieth century and have used the same tactics for more than a hundred years. Monsanto and Cargill have the same monopolistic instincts and low regard for labour rights and animal welfare as Vesteys. Moreover, our food supply has been globalised for as long – if not longer – and the myth that once upon a time all butchers were independent and totally ethical is, well, just that – a myth.

But Vesteys also illustrates how food companies dodge taxes. William and Edmund Vestey went out of their way never to pay tax if they could help it. When the British government began to tax British companies on profits earned abroad, to raise funds for the war effort in 1914, the Vestey brothers first lobbied against the measure, and then upped sticks to Chicago and then Buenos Aires, to take advantage of America and Argentina’s less onerous systems of taxation.

They used a range of strategies now commonplace among multinationals to channel their profits away from countries with high tax rates – the countries, in other words, where they did business. Also, in 1921 the Vesteys established a trust based in Paris which the British authorities could not tax (they didn’t even discover it until 1929). Giving evidence to a Royal Commission established to investigate how to tax multinational businesses, William Vestey summed up his attitude towards taxation:

If I kill a beast in the Argentine and sell the product of that beast in Spain, this country can get no tax on that business. You may do what you like, but you cannot have it.

In 1934, Argentinian authorities which had long been uneasy about the brothers’ cutthroat business practices came across a cache of secret documents hidden under a pile of guano on their ship, the Norman Star. The investigation launched after finding this deeply incriminating evidence was blocked and manipulated at every turn by the Vesteys – who were particularly concerned by British authorities’ interest in it. In the end, the man in charge of the committee and with the greatest knowledge of the Vesteys’ tax evasion systems, Senator de la Torre, shot himself in 1939, leaving a suicide note ‘which expressed his disappointment at the general behaviour of mankind.’

The British government never succeeded in making Vesteys pay its full tax bill. In 1980 it was revealed that two years previously, the Vesteys’ Dewhurst chain of butchers had paid only £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3 million. As one official commented: ‘Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.’

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

The only way to prevent tax evasion and organised crime is through better policing and enforcement of the law. But when food is involved, it is absolutely crucial for efficient regulatory bodies to be put in place. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the appalling conditions under which people worked and cattle were slaughtered in Chicago’s meat packing industry, so appalled readers that momentum behind legislation to enforce standards of animal welfare and hygiene and prevent food adulteration, gathered. The same year, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law. Even though sustained lobbying from big food had weakened America’s regulatory bodies – and has allowed for an increase in instances of contaminated food being recalled – American food is considerably safer now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Without regulation, disasters like the recent milk scandal in China, can occur. Indeed, in 2011 a study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become sick – and 8,500 die – each year from food poisoning. Other than the discovery of melamine in milk and infant formula, there have also been scandals around ‘meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.’

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.

These discoveries – of deadly infant formula, endemic tax evasion among big food companies, food cartels, forged hygiene certificates, forced labour, and deliberately mislabeled meat – are made only at the end of a series of criminal acts. Trying to fix food systems at the point at which food scandals are discovered – by blaming shoppers for buying cheap meat or for supporting multinational companies – avoids tackling the major, systemic problems which allow for businesses not to pay tax, or for criminals to take over the food chain. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Sources

Jennifer Ning Chang, ‘Vertical Integration, Business Diversification, and Firm Architecture: The Case of the China Egg Produce Company in Shanghai, 1923-1950,’ Enterprise and Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005), pp. 419-451.

Arlene Finger Kantor, ‘Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906: “I Aimed at the Public’s Heart and by Accident I Hit It in the Stomach,”’ AJPH, vol. 66, no. 12 (December 1976), pp. 1202-1205.

I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, ‘Trade Secrets: Italian Mafia Expands its Illicit Business,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2012, pp. 44-47.

Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London: Vintage, [2011] 2012).

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It’s Politics, Stupid

One of the most interesting blogs I’ve come across recently is written by the disgraced Labour spin-doctor Damian McBride (who was fired for planning to spread scurrilous rumours about the Tories). His blog offers insight not only into Labour’s last years of power, but also into the functioning of everyday business in Downing Street.

His most recent post, though, is about what he’s giving up for Lent. As someone who’s not at all religious, I’m always taken aback by friends’ declarations of what they won’t be doing or, more usually, eating until Easter. Every now and then I play along, more out of curiosity than anything else. It was rather useful a few years ago for nipping in the bud an incipient addiction to fruit pastilles, but this year I doubt I’ll be joining in.

McBride has pledged to give up the ‘staples of [his] diet’: meat, wheat, and potatoes. Other than the obvious health benefits of drinking less beer and eating less red meat, he’s doing this in solidarity with millions of people living in hunger. He’s not eating meat to draw attention to land grabs; wheat to protest the small number of multinationals which control the trade in grains; and potatoes to show the link between famine and food shortages and big food companies’ refusal to pay their taxes in low- and middle-income nations.

His Lenten self-denial is partly in support of the new anti-hunger If Campaign, launched with some fanfare last month:

As well as more money for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming, the coalition, which includes Oxfam, Save the Children, One, Christian Aid and Tearfund, is calling on the UK government to close loopholes that allow companies to dodge paying tax in poor countries; stop international land deals that are detrimental to people and the environment, and lobby the World Bank to review the impact of its funding for such deals; launch a convention on tax transparency at the G8 to ‘reinvigorate the global challenge to tax havens’; and force governments and investors to be more open about their investments in poor countries. It also wants the UK government to bring forward legislation to enshrine the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.

The Campaign is aiming to take its ambitious programme to this year’s G8 Summit, to be held at the luxury golf resort Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it deliberately compares itself to another campaign taken to a G8 meeting at a golf hotel in the northern British Isles: the celebrity-studded Make Poverty History Campaign, which demanded an increase in aid and the writing off of the debt of some of the world’s poorest countries, at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2005.

I am no fan of Bob Geldof, however well-placed his heart may be. I and many other South Africans were irritated by the Campaign’s simplistic characterisation of Africa – that it is a culturally, socially, and politically homogenous place of suffering and disaster, waiting for the benevolent ministrations of a white-suited Geldof and his similarly saintly fellow celebrities. Why were there no African performers at Live 8? Why did poor dear Peter Gabriel feel the need to organise an alternative event at the Eden Project in Cornwall, featuring only African artists?

That said, MPH did achieve some of its goals:

The G8 summit committed to spending an extra $48bn (£30bn) on aid by 2010, and cancelled the debt to 18 of the most indebted countries. Member states recommitted their pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, although none has yet achieved the magical figure. The UK government has promised to do so this year.

But poverty has not become history. Early analysis of the If Campaign suggests that with its focus on changing policy, rather than on increasing aid, its chances of success are far higher than MPH. Leni Wild and Sarah Mulley note:

The range of issues it covers – from transparency to tax to agriculture – also look and feel different to the more ‘traditional’ development issues which were the focus of Make Poverty History. The UK public wants to hear more about the role of big business and international corporations – including their tax responsibilities. This is a major plank of the new IF campaign which sets out some clear calls for action and does a good job of communicating these in accessible ways.

I also welcome a campaign which tries to eradicate ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that) by focussing on political solutions: ending tax evasion, preventing land grabs, and drawing attention to the fragility of the international food chain, are all excellent strategies for reducing food insecurity. Making links between poor governance and the functioning of multinationals and malnutrition is a far more effective way of ending famine than generalised campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ about the fact that children go to bed hungry at night. But some have expressed concerns about the campaign.

As Bright Green revealed, the If Campaign was organised by the British Overseas Aid Group (Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Save the Children and CAFOD) in close collaboration with the UK’s Department for International Development:

The real scandal of the IF campaign is that it appears to have been shaped more by the desires of the target department than by those of its members, and not at all by the views of its supposed beneficiaries in developing countries. It is constructed around a ‘golden moment’ pro-government PR event intended to ingratiate aid agencies (a large portion of whose funding comes from DfID) with the present rulers, never mind that the agenda of those rulers is implacably opposed to reducing inequality or moderating the global capitalism that causes it.

War on Want has been clear about its reasons for not joining the If Campaign, arguing that that it’s hypocritical for charities to work alongside a government whose ‘austerity programme is driving unprecedented numbers to food banks in Britain’. It notes:

War on Want understands hunger, like all forms of poverty, to be the result of political decisions that are taken by national and international elites, and contested through political action. In this context, the IF campaign is promoting a wholly false image of the G8 as committed to resolving the scandal of global hunger, rather than (in reality) being responsible for perpetuating it. The IF campaign’s policy document states: ‘Acting to end hunger is the responsibility of people everywhere. The G8 group of rich countries, to its credit, shares this ambition and accepts its share of responsibility, having created two hunger initiatives in recent years.; This is a gross misrepresentation, seeing that the governments of the G8 have openly committed themselves to expanding the corporate-dominated food system that condemns hundreds of millions to hunger. Even on its own terms, the IF campaign notes that the G8’s existing initiatives on hunger ‘fall far short of what is required’.

Instead, War on Want advocates a stronger focus on food sovereignty – ensuring that nations are able to feed themselves, and partly through supporting small farmers. (War on Want works alongside La Via Campesina, for instance.) Its point that G8 countries and big business have little interest in food sovereignty is borne out by recent comments made by Emery Koenig, executive vice president and chief risk officer of the massive agriculture business Cargill. He argues that it is food sovereignty that is the ‘true threat to food security’. It’s worth noting that in a time of food crisis, Cargill made profits of $134 billion last year.

In other words, we need far more radical solutions if we’re intent on ending food insecurity. I agree with War on Want’s reservations, and I’d like to add one, further, concern: like MPH, the If Campaign excludes the voices of those in the developing world – those whom it purports to help. Here is no partnership between a consortium of charities and food insecure nations, but, rather, an old-fashioned characterisation of the developing world – Africa in particular – in need of wealthy nations’ charity. This is no attempt to hold African – and other – governments to account for allowing corruption or mismanagement to contribute to malnutrition, nor does it engage with the farmers, producers, and businesses in developing countries involved in the food industry.

if-campaign

In a recent, well-meaning, but disastrous, campaign, Oxfam acknowledged that characterising Africa as a perpetual basket case helps neither African nations, nor those charities working on the continent. It called for Africa’s image to change in the western media. Amusingly, it suggested that Africa should be ‘made famous’ for its ‘landscapes’ rather than ‘hunger’ – indeed, rather than its cities, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, footballers, writers, researchers

Nigerian blogger Tolu Ogunlesi writes:

who – apart from Oxfam, obviously – really cares, in 2013, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved? In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?

I wish … Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny – is there still room for getting away with blaming [and] with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?

His point is that if charities want to make a difference in African countries, they should work alongside African organisations and governments, using African expertise and knowledge:

I think that somehow, the Oxfams of this world get so carried away by the salvation they bring to the helpless peoples of Africa, that they lose sight of the concept of African agency. Once you realise this you understand why Oxfam appears trapped in that irritatingly paternalistic mode of thinking. Saving Africa’s starving children (by providing food) and saving Africa’s saddening image (by providing images of epic landscapes) have this in common is this: they both rely largely on an obliteration of a sense of African agency.

It’s time for the If Campaign to allow Africans – and, indeed, people from other parts of the developing world – to speak, and to help shape foreign interventions in their own regions.

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Bread Lines

Most of my friends went slightly mad as they finished their PhD dissertations; some cried compulsively, another forgot to eat, and I knew a couple who never wore anything other than pyjamas for months on end. My lowest ebb came when I developed a mild addiction to The Archers, a daily, fifteen-minute soap on Radio 4, featuring the activities of a large, extended family in the fictional village of Ambridge.

Described by Sandi Toksvig as ‘a memorable theme tune, followed by fifteen minutes of ambient farm noise and sighing,’ The Archers was created in 1950 as a kind of public information service: the BBC collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food to broadcast information about new technologies and methods to farmers during a period when Britain was trying to increase agricultural productivity.

The series still has an agricultural story editor, and there’s at least one fairly awkward moment in each episode when Ruth Archer discusses milking machines, or Adam Macy mulls over the relative benefits of crop rotation. But its appeal lies now in its human drama. It’s been criticised – rightly – for avoiding complex or uncomfortable social issues, but, recently, it’s featured an excellent storyline involving the series’ poorest family, the Grundys.

Struggling with cuts in benefits and reduced wages, Emma Grundy runs out of money and takes refuge in a food bank, where she and her daughter are given a free lunch. In a sense, this thread dramatizes the Guardian’s excellent Breadline Britain Project, which tracks the ‘impact and consequences of recession on families and individuals across the UK.’ The project has demonstrated convincingly that British people are eating worse as they become less financially secure.

One of its most arresting reports argues that Britain is in a ‘nutrition recession’:

Detailed data compiled for the Guardian, which analysed the grocery buying habits of thousands of UK citizens, shows that consumption of fat, sugar and saturates has soared since 2010, particularly among the poorest households, despite the overall volume of food bought remaining almost static. Food experts and campaigners called for government action to address concerns the UK faces a sustained nutritional crisis triggered by food poverty, which is in turn storing up public health problems that threaten to widen inequalities between rich and poor households.

The data show consumption of high-fat and processed foods such as instant noodles, coated chicken, meat balls, tinned pies, baked beans, pizza and fried food has grown among households with an income of less than £25,000 a year as hard-pressed consumers increasingly choose products perceived to be cheaper and more ‘filling’.

Over the same period, fruit and vegetable consumption has dropped in all but the most well-off UK households, and most starkly among the poorest consumers, according to the data.

It’s no wonder that so many columnists have evoked George Orwell’s description of the very poor eating habits of Wigan’s most impoverished residents during the Great Depression in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). But the use of the term ‘breadline’ harks back to an earlier, and arguably more influential study, Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study in Town Life (1901). Rowntree (1871-1954), the son of the philanthropist and chocolate tycoon Joseph (1836-1925), had studied chemistry in Manchester before beginning work as a scientist in the family business in York.

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree*

But like his father – whose awareness of poverty had been awakened, apparently, by a trip to Ireland during the potato famineRowntree’s encounters with York’s poor led to the first of three studies which he undertook into poverty in York. Inspired partly by Charles Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People (1886), which analysed the lives of London’s poor, in 1899 Rowntree conducted a survey of the working-class population of York. His findings caused a national outcry, as Ian Packer explains:

Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901)…became an important subject of debate because of its assertion that not only were 28 percent of the total households in York in poverty but nearly 10 percent had incomes so low that they could not keep the members of the family in what Seebohm termed ‘physical efficiency,’ that is, provided with sufficient nutritional food to maintain health.

Rowntree used access to food as a means of gauging poverty, and it is here that he originated the idea of the ‘breadline’. Diana Wylie writes:

Rowntree latched on to food, or, more precisely, its lack, as a convenient and revealing means of measuring socially unacceptable levels of deprivation. He drew an absolute poverty line; below it, people did not earn enough to buy the ‘minimum necessities for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency.’ If working men did not consume 3,500 calories of food energy daily, and women four-fifths that amount, their intelligence became dulled and their stature stunted. This quite pragmatic definition of hunger, the ‘underfeeding’ that would destroy a person’s stamina, served for Rowntree as the index for judging Britain’s social progress.

This and Rowntree’s subsequent two studies of poverty in York, published in 1936 and 1951, became some of the most significant evidence on which arguments for the creation of a British welfare state, were based. Rowntree’s point was that unemployment and low wages – and not bad eating or spending habits – were at the root of working-class poverty. It became, then, the ethical duty of the state to provide the means of freeing the population from the threat of hunger.

There is a direct line between Poverty: A Study in Town Life and the 1942 Beveridge Report, one of the most important documents of the twentieth century, which provided the foundation for Britain’s welfare state. But the influence of Rowntree’s work was felt beyond Yorkshire and the UK. In Starving on a Full Stomach (2001), Diana Wylie demonstrates the impact of the idea of the breadline on social scientists in South Africa during the early twentieth century.

In 1935, Edward Batson, a graduate of the London School of Economics, Beveridge enthusiast, and professor of social science at the University of Cape Town, arrived in South Africa and began work on ‘the first systematic survey of black urban poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.’

By 1938, Batson had surveyed 808 Cape Town households to discover how much they spent on six essential food groups, and compared their diet with the…minimum daily standard recommended in 1933 by the British Medical Association. His figures revealed that half of Cape Town’s Coloured people lived below the poverty datum line.

Like Rowntree

Batson refuted some common social scientific assumptions such as that ignorance determined the poor diets of poor Capetonians, a perspective that, he said, had recently become ‘fashionable.’ … On the contrary, Batson wrote, most people simply could not afford to eat better.

Batson’s research was undertaken in the midst of widespread debates around the founding of a South African welfare state, the underpinnings of which were put in place during the 1920s and 1930s with legislation such as the 1928 Old Age Pensions Act, and the 1937 Children’s Act. But although his work concentrated on black people, the South African welfare state was established largely to benefit whites. Indeed, Jeremy Seekings makes the point that pensions legislation in the 1920s emerged out of concerns about protecting the white (and, to some extent, coloured) ‘deserving’ poor from a perceived black ‘threat.’ This meant that evidence of significant hunger among black people was not a force in the formulation of South African welfare policy, at least before the Second World War.

So whereas Rowntree’s research contributed to the creation of a universal welfare state in Britain, where all people qualified for assistance from the state through the provision of social security payments, and free healthcare and education, in South Africa, welfare was raced: the welfare state was created to protect and to maintain white power, and to entrench racial segregation.

Understanding the origins of the term ‘breadline’ helps us to see the extent to which attitudes towards, and efforts to eradicate, hunger have changed over time, and the ways in which they’re influenced by thinking about race, as well as class. That being hungry and white meant – and means – something different to being hungry and black.

This photograph is from the National Portrait Gallery‘s collection.

Sources

William Beinart, Twentieth-Century South Africa, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Timothy J. Hatton and Roy E. Bailey, ‘Seebohm Rowntree and the Postwar Poverty Puzzle,’ The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 2 (Aug. 2000), pp. 517-543).

Ian Packer, ‘Religion and the New Liberalism: The Rowntree Family, Quakerism, and Social Reform,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 42, no2 (April 2003), pp. 236-257.

Jeremy Seekings, ‘“Not a Single White Person Should be Allowed to Go Under”: Swartgevaar and the Origins of South Africa’s Welfare State, 1924-1929,’ Journal of African History, vol. 48, no. 3 (Nov. 2000), pp. 375-394.

Diana Wylie, Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001).

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Food Links, 31.10.2012

The mayor of Phoenix tries to live on food stamps.

Can food riots be predicted?

Austerity and hunger in Spain.

Tom Philpott on baconpocalypse and fishageddon.

The case for veganism.

Food logos and junk food.

Anti-fracking sausages.

The return of ‘wonky‘ fruit and vegetables to supermarkets.

Demand for coffee is set to soar in India and China.

Selling carrots instead of theatre tickets in Spain.

The meanings attached to mooncakes in China.

Capitalism, candy, and Halloween.

The urban legend of the poisoned Halloween candy.

The health benefits of tea.

Cadbury’s wins the exclusive use of Pantone 2685C Purple.

The appeal of Starbucks in India.

Recipes for staff meals in famous restaurants.

The markets of old London.

Eyeball cake pops.

A profile of Bompas & Parr.

What Confederate soldiers ate during the US Civil War.

Be Bold with Bananas.

An interview with Sarah Lohman.

There’s been a decline soup consumption in the US.

The Taihu pig.

The beer milkshake.

Why don’t French children get fat?

Women struggling to drink water.

The ten worst fad diets.

US-politics-themed cookies.

The golden age of British sweets.

Ramens of Japan.

Ten tiny cafes in Melbourne.

Cupcakes in the Gulf.

Can Jamie Oliver’s fifteen-minute meals be made in fifteen minutes?

A pop-up human butchery.

On Carnation Milk.

Every drink consumed in Mad Men.

An interview with Ferran Adria.

The eating of feet.

Beatrix Potter‘s recipe for gingerbread.

How to crack an egg.

Seventeenth-century curd cakes.

Charlie Brooker learns how to cook Japanese cuisine.

These are all courtesy of my Mum:

How food tricks the brain.

The Travelling Gin Co.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in farmers’ markets in Italy.

The new trend for bamboo ash.

Ratatouille at Villanova.

Potato sacks.

The President’s Vegetable Garden

There are very few countries, I think, where a satirical news site is frequently mistaken for being entirely serious. Hayibo – the South African equivalent of the Daily Mash or the Onion – must, occasionally, point out to its readers that its stories are made up, rather than real.

Readers can be forgiven for wondering if a report about striking Marikana mineworkers being charged for the Helderberg plane crash is true, when the ANC announces an official policy on the serving of cake at party celebrations. Or if Cosatu officials really did believe they could move into Cape Town stadium, after the ANC Women’s League decided to march against a rude painting of Jacob Zuma, rather than protest the circumstances which allowed for the serial abuse and gang rape of a seventeen year-old mentally incapacitated girl.

A Hayibo post from this week suggests that the ANC’s national conference to be held in December in Manguang, will be replaced by an episode of Come Dine with Me. Instead of conference delegates voting to choose the new leader of the party – and, thus, by default, the next president of South Africa – four contestants will compete in a series of dinner parties:

The cookery show…will feature President Jacob Zuma take on rival Kgalema Motlanthe, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and Proteas batsman Hashim Amla.

When asked why Amla, a cricketer, was suddenly a contender for the top leadership position in the ANC, BBC producer Cokey McLush shrugged and said ‘Everyone loves that geezer, yeah?’

The four will each host a dinner party on successive nights, and after each dinner will rate the host on his evening. ‘The winner walks away with Pick ‘n Pay vouchers worth R5000, as well as obviously the complete control of South Africa’s political space, so there’s a lot to play for,’ explained McLush.

It would all be much more amusing were it not so very, very serious. I was thinking about food and South African politics this week, after the Mail and Guardian produced a handy interactive guide to the development of Nkandla, the village in which Zuma’s private residence is based.

The Nkandla scandal has rocked South African politics and civil society over the past few weeks, as the City Press revealed that the Department of Public Works has committed to spending R203 million – about US$23 million or £14 million – of public money, not only in developing this village in rural KwaZulu-Natal, but in building Zuma’s increasingly elaborate home.

South African Wonder Woman-incarnate Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, has announced an investigation into the development. Despite her interest and increasing public outrage, the government remains unrepentant: it has declared Nklandla a ‘national key point’, meaning that it comes under security legislation and can’t be reported on; the Minister for Public Works, Thulas Nxesi, declared at a press conference that ‘questioning the need for spending hundreds of millions of rands in Nkandla showed insensitivity to the cultural diversity of South Africa’; and the state has launched an investigation into how the City Press got hold of the documents which revealed the scale of the spending at Nklandla.

Not for nothing has Nkandla been nicknamed ‘Zumaville’. The M&G’s guide reveals how the village will be transformed with new roads, housing, and a shopping centre. Zuma’s own residence will have two helicopter landing pads, a football pitch, tennis court, and underground bunkers. (Remembering, of course, that he has two official houses, one in Pretoria and the other in Cape Town.) I was intrigued by the fact that a vegetable garden has also been included in the development.

The M&G explains:

The vegetable garden is outside the main security zone, but still inside the outer fence, making it accessible for the people who tend it without a need for them to use the front entrance of the compound. The public works department says food security was identified as a potential security threat for President Jacob Zuma and visiting dignitaries, which means the establishment of the garden may have been state-funded.

I am all for heads of state planting vegetable gardens: I think it’s an excellent idea, particularly as a means of encouraging people to grow their own food. I wish more presidents and prime ministers would plant vegetables to show their commitment to feeding their families healthily and relatively cheaply. But I have a couple of reservations about this garden.

Firstly, the Department of Public Works justifies funding the garden on the grounds that food insecurity could pose a threat to Zuma and his guests. What do we mean by ‘food security’? As a paper published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, and cited by the M&G, explains:

Food security as an umbrella term includes: (i) the availability of food that is nutritious and safe; (ii) an assured ability to procure and acquire food of good quality in a socially acceptable way (e.g. without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or similar coping strategies). In contrast, food insecurity exists when food is not easily accessible and households have difficulty securing adequate food.

The authors of the paper argue that although food insecurity declined in South Africa between 1995 and 2008 – due partly to the social grants system and the work of the National School Nutrition Programme – one third of South African children do not eat an adequately varied diet, and 18% of them are malnourished:

Our findings show that the nutrient density of the diet consumed by South African children is insufficient to meet their nutrient requirements. Similarly, they have shown alarmingly low food variety and household dietary diversity scores, both of which have been positively related to children’s nutritional status. … Hence, stunting still affects a large proportion of children.

One of the main reasons for food insecurity in South Africa is poverty and, partly as a result of this, the country’s population is at risk of becoming even more insecure. A 2009 report on food security published by the Human Sciences Research Council notes:

Rising food prices, particularly of maize and wheat which are the staple diet of the poor in South Africa, pose serious problems for the urban and rural poor as most are net buyers of food. Recent information from the Food and Agriculture Organisation…suggest that food prices will increase steadily over the next decade even if there are some fluctuations and the occasional drop in prices. Given increasingly strong linkages between the local level and national and international commodity chains and economic networks, even remote rural households in South Africa are affected by changes in these networks. Unless there are new policy directions, poor households will increasingly be forced to allocate a greater proportion of their expenditure to food, with the result that diets will become less diverse, lower in quality, and energy intake (calories consumed) will drop as people try to cope with the situation. Most severely affected will be the chronically urban and rural poor, the landless and female headed households.

Although the government deserves praise for reducing levels of hunger in South Africa, far too many people, particularly children, don’t have adequate access to food. Indeed, it would appear that with rising food prices internationally, there is a risk that the country may become more food insecure.

To justify the public funding of a vegetable garden for the president’s private residence on the grounds of ‘food security’ is deeply offensive to the numbers of South Africans who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families properly. If the president and the Department of Public Works were genuinely interested in reducing food insecurity in the region, it would make far better sense for them to plant a larger, communal garden for all of Nkandla’s residents.

My second problem with Zuma’s vegetable garden is the very dubious way in which it’s been funded. There is a link between poor governance and food insecurity. One of the best recent examples of how corruption impedes food distribution occurred in Uttar Pradesh. Throughout India, only 41 per cent of the food intended for the very poor by the Food Corporation of India – the government agency established in 1965 to ensure India’s food supply – reaches households. This is due partly to wastage, but also to corruption.

In Uttar Pradesh, though, nearly all food aid was stolen by corrupt officials over the course of three years, as Bloomberg reports:

The scam itself was simple. So much so, that by 2007 corrupt politicians and officials in at least 30 of Uttar Pradesh’s 71 districts had learned to copy it…. All they had to do was pay the government the subsidized rates for the food. Then instead of selling it on to villagers at the lower prices, they sold to traders at market rates.

The irony is that India’s food reserves are full – and there’s more than enough food to go around:

While the Food Corporation of India is required to keep about 32 million metric tons of rice and wheat, bumper harvests have left the country with a stockpile of more than 80 million tonnes, according to the corporation. Stacked in 50-kilogram sacks, the food would reach from Sitapur to the moon, with at least 270,000 bags to spare.

To stop food rotting, the central government lifted a four- year ban on exports of wheat last year. In June, India donated 250,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan.

But with corrupt officials, there’s no way of guaranteeing that this food will reach the poor. When distribution systems fail, people go hungry – and more than half of India’s children, and 21 per cent of adults, suffer from malnutrition.

This is, admittedly, an extreme example of the implications of corruption for food security, but it demonstrates particularly well how poor governance can impact the lives of the very poor. Given the rising levels of corruption in South Africa, it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the government’s good work on reducing hunger has the potential to be reversed if systems are corrupted through bribery, theft, and mismanagement.

It’s an obvious point, but the R203 million set aside for Zumaville could have been used to build roads, railways, food silos, and other infrastructure to improve the distribution of food to rural areas.

Six years ago, Lonmin commissioned a report into the health of the communities in seven villages – including Marikana – around its platinum mines. One of the main findings was that malnutrition was a major problem, and that children had been discovered suffering from kwashiorkor:

an easily prevented condition that occurs when there is insufficient protein in the diet. Kwashiorkor is more common in countries in a state of political unrest, or where there has been a drought or natural disaster.

Why the president feels that he and his guests deserve a state-funded vegetable garden when South African children are suffering from a condition associated with failed states, is utterly beyond me.

Further Reading

Miriam Altman, Tim Hart, and Peter Jacobs, Food Security in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, 2009).

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

Fed Up

This is a short – and late – post because I’ve around 275,532 first-year test scripts to mark. In between correcting essays on the South African War, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Scramble for Africa – yes, wild times this weekend – I’ve been thinking about the recent emergence of a small, yet fierce, anti-foodie movement.

Perhaps ‘movement’ is too strong a word. But it seems to me that there is an increasing unwillingness to tolerate the preciousness and snobbery of foodie-ism. In an extract from his new book on the subject, Steven Poole launches a vicious attack on the ‘food madness’ which has gripped the middle classes:

It is not in our day considered a sign of serious emotional derangement to announce publicly that ‘chocolate mousse remains the thing I feel most strongly about’, or to boast that dining with celebrities on the last night of Ferran Adria’s restaurant El Bulli, in Spain, ‘made me cry’. It is, rather, the mark of a Yahoo not to be able and ready at any social gathering to converse in excruciating detail and at interminable length about food. Food is not only a safe ‘passion’ (in the tellingly etiolated modern sense of ‘passion’ that just means liking something a lot); it has become an obligatory one. The unexamined meal, as a pair of pioneer modern ‘foodies’ wrote in the 1980s, is not worth eating.

Similarly, Hephzibah Anderson makes the point that for all its pretensions of ethical eating, foodie-ism has done very little to change the ways in which most people eat:

If foodism really is about to fizzle, it’s hard to imagine what its legacy will be. Foodists are slavish in their devotion to authenticity, but flipping through bygone cookbooks rarely leaves a person licking their lips. Most of it is revolting. A decade hence, aren’t Heston Blumenthal’s spruce-spritzed mince pies likely to seem just as off-putting? In truth, some molecular gastronomical creations (gorgonzola cheese volleyball, anyone?) don’t sound all that far removed from foodstuffs you’ll find at the nether-end of the dining scale (I’m thinking Turkey Twizzlers and Tater Tots). Naturally, devotees insist that ideas flow in the opposite direction: high-foodism is to the average plate as the Milan catwalk is to the high street. But while it’s true nouvelle cuisine, for instance, brought us the Roux Brothers – ‘the Beatles of gastronomy,’ as Blumenthal labelled them – couldn’t a case be made for Delia Smith having had far more impact on what we actually cook?

Foodie-ism was the product of prosperity: it emerged first during the boom years of the 1980s, and then appeared again – with distinctly moral and ethical overtones – in the early 2000s. It makes sense, then, that the demise of foodie-ism, if that is what is happening, should occur in massive economic crisis. When the poor and unemployed in Greece, Spain, and Britain go hungry, and when people riot in Mexico and Iran because of high food prices, hyperventilating over authentic tapas seems in very poor taste indeed.

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Sad news: the brilliant, fearless, and wonderful Eric Hobsbawm died today. His writing made me want to become an historian. I am immensely proud to have been awarded my doctorate from his department.

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