Eat what we grow? Have to love ourselves, first

I wrote yesterday about how a chance encounter in the afternoon put into perspective a substantial economic campaign that Jamaica’s manufacturers have been running, urging us to buy Jamaica and build Jamaica (BJBJ). My thoughts were incomplete, however. Well, not strictly my thoughts but the Internet’s recording of them. My last draft had to been saved. So, let me finish.

The campaign mentioned has a cousin in the agriculture sector, to grow what we eat and eat what we grow.IMG_1321.JPGIt’s a logical complement to the BJBJ campaign, and should suggest that we use local inputs at least in our food products. Now, the sad truth is that we cannot and do not grow what we eat and eat what we grow.

That’s clear from our food import bill, even though a big part of that is due to our tourist sector and hotels buying foods from abroad to feed foreigners and Jamaicans, whom they think won’t like a standard diet of Jamaican fare.

I’ve never seen any research to validate this bias against feeding visitors local food, and if our hoteliers think it’s really what visitors want, why don’t the French just flood their hotels with, say, Chinese or Lebanese fare? Part of the answer to that is the presence of a highly diverse market for prepared food throughout the country, or at least in major centres. But, another part is the notion of self-worth. What self-respecting French person would want to submerge the nation’s culinary offerings just to satisfy a bunch of foreign visitors? Sacre bleu!

So, we are limited by the fact that we’ve not developed enough offerings of foreign food that visitors can find amongst our national dishes. Kingston has a lot, compared to the rest of the country, but they are few in the great scheme of things. Also, foreign tourists are not steered towards the capital. In fact, the opposite tends to be the case, with visitors urged to stay put in their hotel complex, especially if it’s all-inclusive.

I had a reader request my view last week about venturing out from his north coast all-inclusive lodging to play golf, having been warned that tourists may be the target of bandits or thieves on lonely stretches of the courses. Enlarge that idea to venturing out into the main part of the country and you get another insight into a form of self-loathing that persists. I told the prospective visitor to go and play golf, and if unsure to work with the course management to ensure he did not venture out all alone. Caddies are a part of the standard package at the north coast courses, anyway. I gave my view that they were very professional and trustworthy. After all, that’s their livelihood at risk.

But part of this promoting our own products is simple pride in it. Do we have that? Those who decry our familiar dishes as ‘slave food’ have missed more than the point. They misread the plot. Some have seen that presentation goes a long way. In the same way as people decry our poor manufactured goods and their packaging, how food looks makes a big difference. Some chefs and restaurants have realized this, such as Brian Lumley, who puts Jamaican food on a plate and makes it artistic and delicious.IMG_1322.JPGHis restaurant, 689, is now famous for things like oxtail lasagne and chicken and ackee spring rolls.

But, that’s not to say that the basic presentations as in any little restaurant is poor. These places, and we know they’re everywhere, thrive for the simple reason that for years they have kicked out bad food and just give great meals and affordable. We know about the Gloria’s in Port Royal, but we also know all the little ‘Miss V’ and her boiled crabs or corn soup. Or all the jerk pits and pan chicken sellers. I visited the Scotchies in Montego Bay one Saturday afternoon and was pleased to see the place packed with tourists who’d been ‘dragged’ there by a Coaster van driver. I suspect it was his standard thing, whether he got a free meal for the business or not. I couldn’t help but listen to the appreciative murmuring and “Why can’t we get this at our hotel?” comments.

Now, the food industry is complex and all the desires to use locally sourced items is a mixed bag. Ideally, our production chain would be like a farm-to-table set like Eits restaurant near Newcastle, up the Blue Mountains, in St. Andrew. But, the chain is broken, and fixing the links is a work to be done. So, our local dishes often use imported ingredients, but the finished goods are all Jamaican.

We have some local agricultural goods that have nearly all been exported, for instance, our Blue Mountain coffee. Thank you, Japan. We have local products that can’t meet our demands, such as bananas and plantains for making chips. St. Mary’s Chips have been open about how they use inputs from Dominican Republic to supplement. We may also have quality or health issues in some instances. But, that’s the food industry.

The question is whether we are all committed to a direction and work to get there. I’m not convinced simply because I see so much counter punching against ourselves.

It’s nonsense to bar imports. It’s also nonsensical to limit production to only local products. But, where is our preference? Do local producers feel included or excluded? Have they lived up to the billing? I heard complaints from hotels when I came back last year that local producers were unreliable. Likewise, producers complained about payment problems with local hoteliers. But, how were the farmers being helped to get over their problems?

I know the situation has evolved over the years, but I know the English supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, have corporate policies that promote local produce and suppliers, with a series of direct help initiatives. Do we try to emulate those sorts of practices?

Most things that work are based on their credibility. Talk all you want about supporting the local economy. But, do things that make that talk believeable.