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(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONKaiApril 28, 2023

Let them eat tinned fish and dried lentils

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

In response to rising food prices, the media is awash with budget food ideas and thrifty meal inspiration. But however well-meaning the advice might be, it’s not always well received.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

When TVNZ 1’s Breakfast sat a budget expert and a nutritionist – both with the best of intentions – behind a rather grim pile made up of two carrots, a sack of Pam’s rolled oats, two bags of dried pulses, half a cabbage, a tin of sardines, a container of tofu and a tin of kidney beans last week, they probably weren’t looking for a negative response from viewers. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

“It’s knowing the swaps and the alternatives,” proclaimed the nutritionist from the studio couch as she shared cost-cutting tips to help manage skyrocketing food prices. “A lot of this is about knowing how to cook.”

The premise of the morning television segment might have seemed innocuous enough to some, but it provoked a barrage of frustrated comments on social media. It’s little wonder people were so incensed – these kinds of stories are thoroughly ideological and in the eye of a global-cost-of-living-crisis storm, they can feel relentless. Many, it seems, are tired of being served budget eats and thrifty supermarket alternatives. And for good reason.

The pile of kai from the Breakfast segment.

In a practical sense, this particular segment, along with many others in this vein, make little effort to recognise the reality of people’s everyday relationships with kai. Clearly, none of the food touted here is innately bad, in fact, for a good deal of us this food is exceptionally ordinary. For others though, adopting lentils over meat or tinned fish over fresh would mean parking vital cultural practices. As well, this approach ignores that children can be extremely picky eaters, or that plenty among us have allergies and food intolerances. Nor does it account for the fact that not everyone has the time to cook or to learn to make these kinds of foods. And that the spices, herbs and accoutrements to make this food taste delicious are absent from plenty of pantries. To suggest that people can so easily substitute their kai is to forget that for the vast majority, food means so much more than pure sustenance.

But there’s another, more complicated, piece of the puzzle here. It’s the thread of individualism that is pervasive in these kinds of cost-cutting food stories.

When I talk about the cost of living crisis, it’s perhaps more accurate to talk about it as a feature of the ongoing inequality crisis, in which low-waged people continue to bear the bulk of the burden. So, while suggesting tinned beans for dinner might seem solely helpful in an immediate sense, it also runs the risk of normalising a world where many struggle to afford the basics. Meanwhile, the lucky among us continue to devour whatever and however much they please. It’s an approach that presents the cost of living crisis as a symptom of personal dietary decisions rather than an outcome of political decisions.

Naturally, that focus also sees the potential solutions land in the realm of individual choice rather than the far more useful approach: collective action. In a recent article on The Spinoff, Toby Boraman writes, “[from] the late 1960s to the early 1980s…the union movement used strikes to combat the effects on workers of chronic inflation and a deep economic crisis.” As he explains in the article, this tended to work pretty well.

‘Foodbank friendly’ tags at New World. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Admittedly, it’s much easier to approach our current cost of living crisis reality with stories that attempt to respond to immediate needs, by way of thrifty dinner inspiration or raisin-scattered porridge. But if we’re in the business of looking for actual solutions, we can’t ignore the far more complex landscape underpinning this. Should supermarkets be making more than $1 million in excess profits each day? Why are median wage earners paying more than double the rate of tax as the wealthiest New Zealanders? Is food inflation being driven by company profits? Is it fair that we’ve created a society where there is so much choice and variety, and yet so many can’t access that? Or, as I discovered on my weekend shopping trip, why do some supermarkets now have “foodbank friendly” labels on the shelves?

Still, I don’t believe that celebrating the potential of cheaper kai is always an endorsement of the status quo. There’s an evergreen value to sharing knowledge around more affordable ingredients and tips to avoid food waste. In fact, I’ve encountered plenty of food media that manages to provide useful tips and tricks without forgoing nutrition, convenience, culture and taste, and most importantly, without asking people to resort to gruel. Recently I’ve written articles which probably fit into the budget food story category – I hope they strike the right balance, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me that I was doing exactly what I’m critiquing here.

Counter this cost-cutting morning television segment with another TVNZ 1 story on the impact of the cost of living crisis on three pensioners. “I couldn’t afford a piece of fish,” recounts one woman with tears in her eyes. “It makes me feel like I don’t count any more, like I’m not managing my money enough and it makes me feel like I can’t afford to eat healthy any more.” A heartbreaking reality within a country so plentiful with kai, and one that certainly won’t be solved solely by what we put in our individual shopping trolleys.

Keep going!