Poverty is definitely not some bucolic ideal that we should romanticise. It is ugly, brutal and should be fought against. But there are lessons from the poor that we, in affluent (and frequently complacent) urban Australia, appear to have forgotten. It might do us well to re-learn some of them.
When asked last week to consider my views on the so-called “potato revolution” in Greece, the first thing that came to my mind was how sad it is that it takes financial hardship and deprivation to point people back to sensible, rational and sustainable approaches to food and their communities.
The potato revolution is a shift back to direct relationships between farmers and consumers brought on by the Greek recession and the imposed austerity measures that have left many ordinary people unemployed or on dramatically shrunken incomes while prices remain high.
Direct relationships, or at least very short supply chains, is exactly how most people buy their fresh food and staples in poor countries. Late last year, I spent three months doing field research in Ethiopia; a country synonymous with poverty, hunger and deprivation. While that is an unrepresentative generalisation, it is certainly true in some parts of the country and most of the rural areas are indeed very poor.
In Ethiopia, I would buy my fruit and vegetables from street stall sellers who either brought their produce in daily from the peri-urban areas themselves or who sold it on behalf of their families who grew it out in the rural areas. It was not unusual to be crammed into to the crowded public minibuses with people (frequently women) bringing 20 kilogram or even 50-kilogram sacks of onions, tomatoes, grapefruit or grains into the city to sell. Often, in the rural areas, there weren’t even minibuses; the only affordable form of transport for poor farmers to get their produce to market village was on foot and donkey.
We don’t have to do resort to any of that, and we are all the luckier for it. But now, as the Greeks rediscover where their food comes from, they don’t have to resort to donkeys or lugging sacks of wheat on to buses either; there are trucks and other infrastructure that can easily connect urbanites with food growers.
What is great for the Greeks amid their sad situation is that they are getting to know the source of their produce, to know that it is truly fresh, to know by whom (and how) it was grown, and to pay a fair and affordable price for it. These are things that most Ethiopians instinctively know.
And that fair and affordable price for the produce goes all to the farmer. Not to middlemen; not to pay for transport around the country; not to pay for cool-storage for an indeterminate duration; not to pay for packaging and labels, not to pay for shop shelf-space; not to pay for advertising nor to pay for automated check-out machines that will eventually put employees out of jobs. Nor are Greeks or Ethiopians paying inflated “farmers market” or “organic produce” prices because good, fresh produce - still with dirt attached - has become an opportunity for elitism.
There is another thing about being able to do business directly with a farmer, her daughter or a farmers’ co-operative: it is a beautiful market system. People buy from vendors they trust and from whom they get great produce and service. Ethiopians know this and the Greeks are probably learning it too.
There is true competition with plenty of choice and, even when people are very poor, it is equitable. Farmers and vendors aren’t labouring to make profit for some distant shareholder or senior executive’s pay packet, but for themselves, their families and their communities.
There are other lessons that come from living amongst the poor and thus valuing our food, where it comes from and how much it worth. In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, I was surprised to see how much food was piled on to the plates of customers in cafés and restaurants – and how much was still left on the plates when people finished eating.
After making a truly silly comment to a local about “not going hungry in Ethiopia”, it was carefully explained to me that cafes and restaurants are generous with food because the people who can afford to eat there can afford to share with those who cannot afford to eat at all. It is usual for people to take leftovers from a restaurant either to share with their family later or to give to the poor in their community on the way home. If they don’t take the leftovers home, the restaurant will share them with the poor and homeless in their own neighbourhood.
Food is valuable, it is not wasted and those who can afford to, do their best to share it. Indirectly, this has a remarkable affect on social cohesion. Once I started giving my leftovers to the poor in my neighbourhood, I quickly made more local friendships and I soon gained a feeling of belonging in a very foreign place. In my busy and atomised urban lifestyle in Australia, I often think how nice it would be to know my neighbours better and share food with them, even though they are not going hungry.
Out in the field 600 kilometres from Addis, one of my friends told me how growing up his mother would “teach” him and his siblings to get used to being hungry. Even if there was food in the house, they would go without; sometimes for a day, sometimes for two. His mother told them that this was to prepare them in case another famine should come; they would be better able to cope if they had had practice going hungry.
In Australia, consumers spend an estimated $5 billion on food we take home then throw away. That is a world away from learning to go hungry, and I think it shows we’ve forgotten the real value of food to squander it so blithely. I’m proud of local charitable organisations such as OzHarvest that have recognised this and are doing something about it.
But it’s a much bigger problem than that. $5 billion is also a lot of extra revenue for our big food retailers that perhaps could go to better use, especially in a world with one billion people going hungry and where many Australian farmers are doing it tough. There are lessons for us from the Greeks on how we reconnect with food growers; we don’t need the shock of personal financial hardship to learn from their example.