Who’s going to make your food? – PART 2

A quick cappuccino on the way to work. A kebab for lunch. Into the local bakery on the way home then out for a tasty Thai dinner. Eating out is a way of life in New Zealand and it’s usually pretty affordable, but that may be about to change.

At the end of September Immigration New Zealand dealt our hospitality sector a devastating blow – from the 1st of October, anyone wanting to gain permanent residency through hospitality work might as well just go home or find another country. In my last post I talked about the value of hospitality, and the satisfaction I get from working in this industry. Now let’s take a look at Bread and Butter Bakery’s dealings with Immigration NZ and talk about society’s inherent disregard for all people in the food producing system.

Drink or food? This might be the future of hospitality in this country if we continue to value the people working in it too little.

In the future there’ll be more and more jobs we can automate. For a start lawyers and accountants should be very nervous about their future, because let’s face it, nobody cares if their accounts are done by a robot or a person, all that matters is that they are correct and the cost is not too high, and who wouldn’t be happy to have contract to download for the fraction of the price a lawyer would do it for? But who wants to eat in a restaurant where you key in your order at a screen, sit down and wait for a robot to serve you food that has been spat out by another robot? Food is about so much more than just getting enough calories. Eating out in particular is about celebrating life, being together with others, enjoying a well-cooked meal and a glass of good wine or beer. Creating a memorable experience for diners is not something that just happens – it’s created by someone with the experience, skill and passion to make the ordinary extraordinary. Producing consistently high quality food from scratch then serving it with a smile requires a combination of skills, systems and staff. It really is a joint effort. Firstly there are delivery drivers that bring the ingredients to the kitchen hands that prepare the mise-en-place. There are bakers, pastry chefs and chefs who bake and cook and prepare the meals. They in turn rely on the waiters, baristas, food runners and dishwashers to get their delicious creations to the diners quickly and on sparkling flatware. Admittedly some of these jobs require more training than others, but each and every one of them are necessary to make that steaming plate of tasty food appear in front of you.

Earlier this year, Bread & Butter Bakery went through the arduous process of proving there’s a shortage of skilled workers in the baking industry. This involved applying to Immigration NZ and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and we were eventually rewarded with the “Accredited Employers” stamp of approval. It’s a very lengthy process, involving proof of our status as a responsible employer, respecting all employment laws, paying staff adequately and having all the appropriate health and safety protocols in place. We also have to prove we’ve made efforts to recruit and train New Zealanders to work in the bakery but haven’t managed to find enough for our needs. This makes us, in the words of Immigration NZ “an (accredited) employer, who is part of a small group of New Zealand companies who are able to recruit globally and have your employees’ Talent work visas processed as a priority.”

Needless to say, we were very relieved to finally be able to hold on to our hard-working immigrant staff and recruit new staff with a potential path to residency. We were also able to plan and grow the business with more certainty. But then came the blow in September and our newly acquired status as accredited employers became worthless overnight, as paying a minimum of $90K (up from 55K p.a. in one hit) for a 40 hour work week is just not achievable in hospitality. 

So, Immigration NZ, where to from here? How are we going to cook the food, bake the bread and keep our locals and tourists fed and watered? What about the Americas Cup? And who is going to staff all the new restaurants in Westfield Newmarket, Commercial Bay in Britomart and the soon-to-open dining district in Sylvia Park? All these building projects and dining districts get consented and their spaces filled by food vendors, so we obviously need and want hospitality. If we all agree that we like to go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, can we please also have an honest discussion about the people making our food and drinks, and how vital they are to our way of life? 

Many of hyped new building projects in Auckland feature large food courts and dining districts. Commercial Bay, which is now due to open in March 2020 is going to have two levels of restaurants, cafes and food vendors. Who is going to work in them?

I think the hospitality problem is part of a wider problem – the inherent disregard for all people in the food production system. Starting with farmers, constantly bullied and shamed for their practices (I’m not excusing the practice of chemical industrial farming, rather I think farmers have been led to believe a fundamentally flawed approach to farming is the only way, which it most definitely is not! But that’s another story, which I have already talked about in earlier posts). From the farmers all the way to the people who prepare and serve the food, everyone seems to be work too hard and get paid too little. It makes the entire food industry a rather unattractive prospect, one no young person in their right mind would consider as a career, whether in farming or hospo. 

The question is, where is all the money going? Clearly we are paying quite a lot for food – in my home country Germany food is ridiculously cheap compared to NZ.  If our food producers – the restaurant and bakery owners, baristas, waiters and kitchenhands aren’t getting the money, and I can assure you we are not, then who is?

I’ll tell you were the money is going. It’s ending up in the supply chain. An often overly-long and complicated process where everyone along the line is clipping the ticket. It’s not uncommon to find the same big players benefitting at several points in the supply chain. Did you know that only 10 companies are responsible for 60% of all the food moved and eaten in the Western world? 10!!!! They are the ones operating the supply chains, dictating prices to the farmers and demanding growers dump products rather than sell them so the big 10 can maintain their inflated retail pricing. They treat food as a commodity that can be traded at global stock markets, making it subject to speculation and trends controlled by people with little interest in the end result. Food consolidated into these globally operating giants loses all connection to the regions or people that produce or consume the food. It’s an extractive system that mines soil, plants, animals and people, leaving all barren and spent.

Soil erosion is a big problem for agriculture world wide. But the erosion of people as a resource is often overlooked.

The hidden costs of this system are enormous. The cost to the environment from poisoned or eroded soils that can no longer grow food. The  polluted waterways and rivers, the huge carbon footprint from the production of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and food additives. The immense cost of moving all this food around the globe, and to top it all off 40% of food produced in this way is just wasted. It just adds insult to injury.

Then let’s factor in the cost to our health.  Eating cheap, unhealthy mass-produced food is leaving a legacy of rotten teeth in toddlers, a tidal wave of diabetes that is overwhelming the Western world’s health system, chronic bowl problems, allergies, depression and millions of hours of lost productivity. 

And finally, there is the humanitarian cost.  The stress that people working in the food system are under with long, often unsociable hours, low wages, job insecurity and lack of respect from the public.

A study by the UK’s Sustainable Food Trust suggests that the hidden cost of our broken food system maybe as much as 100% of the cost of the food itself. That means that we are paying the same amount of money again later, because we make bad choices with our food and we undervalue the people and processes that produce the food. That $1 pie isn’t quite so attractive now. I think it is time for a fundamental shift in our thinking around food because this really needs to stop!

Jacinda Ardern proudly announced at the UN conference in September that she wants New Zealand to become the most sustainable food producer in the world. We now need to hold her and her government accountable and demand that the whole system is reformed. Starting with the kinds of foods we grow, how we grow them, how and where we distribute it to, and before we get ahead of ourselves and claim to be sustainable we should ask who are the people working in the industry and are we valuing them? Are they dispensable short-term commodities that we import, use and then discard, or are they an integral part of the whole system, worth acknowledging, valuing and welcoming to this beautiful country and our communities? After all aren’t we all descendants of migrants, who came here hoping for a better life through hard work?

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