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Lee Yuen urges citizens: Buy local
Cracking open a pod of pois doux, munching on tamarind (tambran), fat pork and caimite fruits number among the childhood delights of “yesterday’s children.” In contemporary T&T, the aforementioned fruits are a rare find on the T&T landscape. At the markets, it’s easier to purchase root crops like dasheen, yam and eddo. But despite its availability, it begs the question whether the citizenry is consuming local foods or whether enough is being done to promote Buy Local programmes and campaigns. “We are not doing enough.” That’s the blunt view of Wendy Lee Yuen, chairman of the Prices Council/Ministry of Legal and Consumer Affairs. She said: “We are using taxpayers’ money to feed everybody from the regiment to the prisons. That is where the big bucks are spent on food.”
Lee Yuen said if T&T society was serious it was important to support local farmers. “We need to buy from local farmers rather than buying imported chicken. The chicken goes into the school-feeding programme. The prices are very comparable. “We need to set the example and keep the money circulating in the economy. We would be supporting all the support services like the food attendants. It would create more employment.” She said: “When you buy local, you build your economy. There are better spin-offs like better nutrition. You keep more people employed and create a better quality of life.”
Lee Yuen cited an example of imported chicken versus “home grown.” “Just imagine, if instead of importing chicken in excess of one million kilos, if we were to utilise local capacity we would expand the number of people employed comfortably. It would be expanded by another 20 per cent.” Without making direct reference to crime and violence plaguing the country, she said: “A hungry man is an angry man.”
Businessmen to get on board
Buy Local would be a great plus for small businessmen since they have greater access to local foods. On the flip side, Lee Yuen said: “Big businessmen would not be so inclined because we don’t have a collection point. It creates a difficulty with encouraging big businesses. The will might be there but the methodology is flawed.” In an effort to urge businessmen to get into the promotion of Buy Local, Lee Yuen said there was the need for the Government to create proper policies. “That is where policy comes into play. We could create collection depots, for example, sweet potatoes. It is something that has to be built incrementally.”
Paying kudos to the strides to buying local, Lee Yuen said: “We are on the right road but we have a long way to go.” Lee Yuen sounded a warning knell. “Food is now an economic weapon. If you look at USA and China, the trade war is going to come down to food eventually. In the global picture, we have zero leverage. We need to pay much greater attention to national food security. “Coconut milk powder is being imported from the Philippines. We have not reached the point where we are making simple, little interventions. We are importing food. Too much of our diet is foreign,” she said.
Domestic food sales
Doubles, channa and oil down feature in magazines that entice tourists with a smorgasbord of indigenous cuisine. Lee Yuen said: “We are a creative people. We have a wonderful cuisine. We need to see more promotion of entrepreneurs and create a unique space for T&T. We need to promote more domestic sales of our foods.” Lee Yuen said social support systems should find a way to marry its programmes with local produce. She cited the example of the Smart Cards which are distributed by the Ministry of the People on Glenn Ramadharsingh’s watch.
Lee Yuen said: “We give out thousands of Smart Cards. But yet we have not found a mechanism to swipe a Smart Card in the market. “People are not aware of the fantastic nutritious value in fruits, vegetables and root crops. The Vitamin C content of a West Indian cherry is very high. It is more desirable to eat dasheen than to eat potatoes which are imported.” She added, “You could eat those ground provisions because it is incredibly beneficial from a health perspective. Diabetics would be better able to plan their meals.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 230 million people worldwide are living with diabetes, and it is projected the number would exceed 333 million by 2025, with 80 per cent of the increase occurring in low and middle-income countries.
Education would also play a pivotal role in buying local. She said: “It is important to be educated about local foods. If you get it out of your backyard it is even better than getting it at the supermarket. We need to adopt the slogan ‘Fresh is Best.’” In contemporary society, parents are focused on raising global children. Again, Lee Yuen said, it is mandatory to train the little ones to eat local. She said children need to be “re-educated as to what is good food. They could enjoy pineapple slices as opposed to peaches.”
Keenly aware children gravitate toward fried foods, Lee Yuen said: “They want to eat fast foods. We need to reintroduce them to the array of fruits and vegetables that we have.” Such an exercise would employ the skills and expertise of local award-winning chefs in the preparation of special dishes which would cater to epicurean delights. She said: “We can create all these fabulous dishes. We need to share some of these recipes with parents. They could enjoy these dishes rather than stick it on a plate. Good food is one of the great joys of life.”
Diana Francis/Policies and Trade Specialist on National Trade Issues at Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA) says proper policies should influence Buy Local campaigns. Dominican-born Francis said: “It should not be a knee-jerk reaction. If food prices are rising, then it is automatic to place the blame on imports. “The whole world has agreed the price rise phenomenon is an economic question. The question becomes, what do we do about it when it comes to food security. If your policies interface and they are not well balanced you can find yourself shooting yourself in the foot.”
On the flip side, Francis notes it was mandatory for any country to ensure its citizens are fed with safe and wholesome food. She added: “If the local agricultural sector is able to provide safe and wholesome food that can satisfy the demand, there would be no need to pursue campaigns like Buy Local. “It is a last resort to influence people to do things that they may not want to do. You have to raise awareness of the products.” Before embarking upon Buy Local campaigns, Francis warned, the food must be available in gargantuan amounts for public consumption. She said: “If you go through all the energies of doing such campaigns and the food is not available or safe or wholesome, then you are essentially negating the benefits of Buy Local.”
Citing the example of local provisions, she said: “Let’s say you want people to eat more dasheen and cassava and they go to the supermarkets and it’s not there, then, what do you do? “What do you do when the masses come to purchase and the food is unavailable?” An endeavour of such immense proportions demands proper planning. Francis said: “You have to be able to balance the needs with the production capacity and the foods that are available to the consumer. It must be a well-thought-out campaign. It has to be filtered out. It has to continually put the agricultural sector in a mode where they have to meet demands of the consumer. You have to be able to ensure you can deliver. It’s not the easiest thing if there is no substance to back it up.” The “culture” of the society has an additional impact on choices.
“Changing consumers’ taste patterns is not an overnight success. It is a long process,” Francis said.
Another “setback” was that Buy Local campaigns tend to be temporary. Francis said: “We abandon the Buy Local because we have a lot of unfinished business. We have to stick to something long enough. Buy Local campaigns tend to be temporary. It should not be a marketing ploy. It should be tied into the long-run development policy for agriculture.” Francis said it was important to identify the market if one was attempting Buy Local campaigns. She said: “Are you targeting the general public? It has to be made appealing. If not, it becomes a sensitisation programme and not necessarily a change agent.”
She identified schools as an important stomping ground. “You would be starting with the schools. You could brainwash them with buy local campaigns. If the emphasis is to break the rising trend in the non communicable diseases, they must be prepared to ensure local foods are safe.” Francis noted there were undercurrents behind Buy Local campaigns. Hence, proper policy had to come into play.
She said: “Whatever we do, there must be a modicum of success and progress in the long run. It all comes back to our agricultural round table. Where do we go with our food and environmental policies? Do we have the will power to stick to it? “Success can breed success. We should not look at agriculture as dead. It is a very dynamic sector.” Surveying Caribbean governments, Francis said the budget tends to be lowest with regard to agriculture. “We have that kind of disconnect. When it is factored into policy then people can make an informed choice of local versus imports. It’s always a good measure.”
Francis noted these issues would be addressed at a symposium at Caribbean Week in Dominica.
“We are looking at highlighting success in agriculture.” Allister Glean/Institutional Support manager (Trinidad and Tobago Agri-Business Association) TABA says “making local food sexy” was a major intervention in getting citizens to buy local. He said: “We have to make local food sexy. We have to look at the whole thing about people becoming obese. “One of the things we need to look at is the cassava and sweet potato. Is it good for diabetics? Is the food healthy? Is it appetising?”
Comparing T&T with Barbados, Francis said: “We are asking consumers to buy? Are we promoting enough? “The Ministry of Trade and Consumer Affairs has been playing their part. Are we doing enough?” “In Barbados everybody is on board. The whole campaign is focused on how to get this message out to consumers. “Are the institutions on board? Are the supermarkets, restaurants and various hotels on board? Or are they focusing heavily on imported stuff? Are we going to buy apples and grapes or paw paws and pommecytheres?”
Glean endorsed the sentiment, if consumers support farmers it would redound to the economic benefit of the country. “If consumers help farmers drive the economy, then locals would see how it benefits the economy. The more you buy local, the more T&T develops.” Glean paid kudos to local establishments like restaurant Pollo Tropical that have placed cassava and plantain on the menu. He said: “We need to promote them more. People need to know more and more where they can get local stuff. “Barefruit (juices) looks foreign but it’s local. You can’t tell if our fries are local because they are so good. It feels good to see bartenders making use of Angostura Bitters.”
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