The First Food

Jam

The first food I ate after giving birth six months ago was toast and jam. Plain, fairly boring toast, with one of those little sachets of jam that you get in a budget hotel. It is basically flavoured glucose syrup. I got to choose between jam and marmalade, and I chose jam. The NHS tea and toast is a classic. What isn’t talked about is what comes next.

Five days of hospital food followed. Naively, I thought that Bristol, a city which prides itself on its food culture, might have achieved a basic standard of fresh food being available in its hospitals. That wasn’t what I found.

Main dining room food

The food was presented in metal take-away containers that could be put straight in the oven. It wasn’t just ready-meal type main meals that were in these containers, but also the vegetables, mashed potato, chips, baked beans and almost all the elements of the lunchtime and main meals.

As I could eat only some things on the menu, I was given a cardboard box of frosty frozen meals from which I chose two for each day. It wasn’t special food, just the same meals as already existed jumbled up in order. When I asked about the food, what was really noticeable was that I was talking with someone who didn’t know what was in the boxes, so she couldn’t really help.

It turned out that the cook was on holiday, and the cleaning staff had been left to run the kitchen. This didn’t matter too much, the woman explained, because there wasn’t much cooking involved, all that she had to do was put the boxes in the oven and throw away the left overs. So, even in normal times, there was no-one cooking whose job it was to deal with ingredients. Cleaning, in this context, was almost certainly a more specialised and skilled job.

I might be coming across as a privileged want-to-be food critic, but after several days with no sleep at all, a long labour, and a very small new baby to look after, all I wanted was something that would be kind to my digestive system. Simple hearty freshly made soups would have been lovely.

One of my genuine favourites. The lentil stew worked well with a baked potato, but this was hardly freshly made.

I’d read the ‘First Forty Days by Ou, Greevan and Belger and learnt about the ancient Chinese wisdom of zuo yuezi which includes only eating warm nutritious food in the first days after birth, and I had vague notions of trying to put this wisdom into practice. It wasn’t to be. The food arrived in big metal containers, throw-away take away trays that were simply put in the oven at 3pm every day directly from frozen and that would then be available to eat from 5-6.30pm.

I found time difficult to manage in those early days, with doctors stopping by, a baby I didn’t yet know, and news to break to people again and again. The breakfast-lunch-dinner menu is just an indistinct feature of the background of the whole maternity experience, but it should be a supportive one, not an added worry to newly anxious parents. I know one new mother who after giving birth had to trek to the neo-natal ward every day to visit her critically ill baby. When she arrived back to her ward and the dining room 10 minutes after the 6.30pm dinner cut off, she found her meal that she’d gone to significant effort to pre-order, had been thrown in the bin. If there is ever a time when the reassurance of a good meal is needed, regardless of ancient Chinese wisdom, it is in the days after giving birth, be that at home, or in hospital.

A frozen metal box of baked beans is a pretty unappetising sight. Although there might be nothing ‘wrong’ with some of the meals, there is nothing right about them either. I chose five of the twelve cardboard boxes I’d been offered for the days ahead which worked with my allergies. I hoped that they might taste better than they looked and wondered how many I might replace with food that my partner could bring in. Yet there was nowhere to heat up food on the ward and it was Christmas, so we couldn’t expect much.

There was another option that was mentioned a lot, especially by midwives who were tired of despairing at what was on offer in the kitchen: this was to get take-aways. But take-aways are not a realistic option for people who are stuck in hospital for days, weeks or even months on end.

Take-aways as an alternative is also a way of individualising the problem, shifting the cost onto the patient and privatising the solution. It is a way of distracting from the problem of poor food and creating a division between those who can afford to pay someone less well-off to bring them food to their bedside, and those who need to recur to what has been provided as standard.

There was also a sadness to the ‘dining room’. Hexagonal tables and the large kitchen evoked a time when women perhaps went together from their wards, got lunch at the canteen and sat together in the dining room to eat. If this happened it was probably some time ago. Now, in a post-covid era, the standard of the food, and the attitude towards it, was instead fostering a culture of each-to-their-own deliveroo, behind individual blue curtains.

This seemed like a big waste of food and a big waste of an evidently large kitchen. It was designed for people to chop, slice, grate, boil, steam and roast food. Now all it was being used for was defrosting and disposing of food. It’s true that some fruit was available. But an over-soft satsuma does not really lift the spirits.

Helping women to breastfeed is one of the roles of a maternity ward, but women need to eat well and drink well to breastfeed successfully. There was a ‘drugs trolley’ that the midwives brought around the wards several times a day. This was well-stocked, replete with everything from paracetamol to highly specialised and personalised medication, but there was nothing equivalent in terms of food.

If this is the standard of food available to new mothers at St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol, a University associated hospital that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of research and practice related to birth and maternal care, in a city that has a very strong food awareness, culture and even an award for being a Gold Sustainable Food City, the standard is unlikely to be significantly higher elsewhere. We heard that down the road at Southmead Hospital there was also a lack of freshly prepared food and friends complained of ‘potatoes with potatoes’ being served for dinner.

This is likely to be the result of large contracts being awarded on the basis of cost only and in the context of a cash strapped health system. It would make sense though, if healthy Mums and babies are the top priority, to invest in more than throw away food and equip the kitchen at least as well as the drugs trolley.  

Potatoes with potatoes also featured in my best hospital meal.

Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers to harvest food?

In the recent launch of the new migration research project MigResHub, agricultural labour economist Professor Philip Martin stated that he saw the future of farming in the USA as reliant on ‘machines and migrants, buffered by imports’. This is indeed the direction in which commercial agriculture is going. However, we don’t need to accept this trajectory. It means relegating agricultural work to the bottom of the pile for good and accepting as a given that people don’t want to pick fruit (when they have other options). This is not necessarily true, at least in the UK.

My new project on risk and resilience looks at work in horticulture, where much seasonal labour is required, so I want to focus particularly on the ‘migrants’ part of Martin’s prognosis for the future of the food system. Yet, the dominance of both machines and imports in the food security debate makes them important to comment on too.

Lang reasons that, due to Britain’s imperial past, we are used to assuming that other countries will feed us, but he argues that we should be wary of doing so for security as well as sustainability reasons. As I found in my last project, Moroccan workers producing food for Europe’s imports experience pressures such as low wages, a lack of respect and intense time pressures. Put simply, they face the same patterns of pressures as farmworkers within the UK. A reliance on imports therefore displaces social and environmental challenges to other places.

A mechanical engineer with an agricultural robot (image: This is Engineering on Flickr)

Machines have always reduced labour in agriculture, which makes food cheaper but not always better. This direction of travel, spearheaded most recently by proponents of AI and robotics, is at least partially self-propelled by those involved in producing ever bigger and more sophisticated machinery. Huge increases in research funding for automatisation contribute to an industry that has established a narrative of erasure of the majority of workers from agriculture within food systems. (Searching in the UK Research and Innovation Gateway for projects involving the terms ‘robot, agriculture, food and labour’ brings up 1,169 relevant research projects funded in 2019, compared with fewer than five a year between 2000 and 2005.)

The public debate over agriculture and migration has intensified in recent years. While farmers call for large numbers of temporary seasonal workers, nationalist sentiment keeps up pressure for tight restrictions on migration across the board. In addition, discomfort regarding working conditions plays on the conscience of consumers. This mix of concerns appears related to the haste towards robotisation. Government and industry specialists are now charmed by ‘agricultural modernisation’ (robotics and AI) and characterise temporary worker migration as a short-term fix before the mechanical hands are ready to pick. In 2018, Michael Gove re-introduced the UK’s temporary migration programme by saying that ‘… automated harvesting solutions are not universally available and so in the short term, this pilot will support farmers during peak production periods.’ Migration as a short-term fix is a convenient discourse, but insufficient. Not every task is easily mechanised, and while machines work best on large flat lands, the UK has many smaller hilly fields.

Temporary worker permits in agriculture are not new. We could say that the seasonal agricultural workers, who came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, took over from the Women’s Land Army. There is also a longer continuity of drawing on those at the periphery of the workforce for seasonal labour. In earlier times, Irish workers and Travellers were among those who met labour demands at peak times. What is common to all these temporary workers is their position in the labour market, which is low.

The seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS) is the UK’s temporary migration programme; it began as a volunteer scheme after the war and became SAWS in 1990. Access to the EU labour market led to its closure in 2014 as policy makers argued that freedom of movement made SAWS unnecessary. However, this ending turned out to be temporary. Following the Brexit vote in 2016, farmers feared, and began to experience, a lack of access to willing workers. A ‘pilot’ SAWS was launched again in 2018, initially with quotas of just 2,500 workers, which has been increased to 10,000 workers from 2020 onwards. The continuity of demand is clear.

Migrant workers harvest leeks in Lincolnshire, UK (image: John M on Geograph)

Rather than just focusing on SAWS or migrant workers we also need to consider agricultural work itself. The prognosis of machines, migrants and imports takes as a given that workers, given full access to a diverse labour market, will not choose to work in agriculture. Yet, could this be more about the agricultural model than any naturalised preference of workers? Intensive production systems are indeed unattractive to many as a career choice, especially if you don’t own the land.

Nevertheless, many people are interested in producing food. In the UK, demand for allotments has quadrupled in recent years, and growing at home boomed under lockdown. This year, record numbers of non-migrants signed up to pick fruit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while many didn’t end up on the farm, or didn’t last long, this shows an interest in the work. Perhaps for those that dropped out it isn’t them who should be blamed, but rather the system. Some large UK farms are now described as ‘plantations’, with monocultures that require absolute obedience from both nature and worker. Rejecting this kind of workplace regime – which only became dominant after a squeeze on farms from retailers in the 1990s – doesn’t mean people don’t want to grow food at all.

The growing Land Workers Alliance, representing sustainable growers and farmers, is testament to the increasing interest among young people. So too is the LION (Land In Our Names) movement of black people and people of colour gathering to access land for sustainable projects in the UK. These movements are challenging assumptions about who can be a grower, and a farmer. If opportunities are provided for this to become decent and sufficiently paid work, an able, diverse and motivated workforce may just be available.

Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers? I think it’s more important that we don’t naturalise the assumption that only migrants do farm work. The ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign set up early in the pandemic had the benefit of reconnecting British people with the idea (and for some the reality) that we too can pick fruit. As people rallied to feed the nation, it’s just possible that the public became more aware of the essential nature of this work. Alongside machines and imports, it’s possible to aspire to a future in which migrants and non-migrants choose jobs that bring in the harvest – and that they are supported to do so.

‘Urban gardening vegetable harvest crop‘ by Markus Spiske on Flickr

This post was originally published on the Migration Mobilities Bristol Blog on 1st December 2020.

Proper Spanish Lunch

menu-del-diaThe proper Spanish lunch is no small or fast affair. It can’t be eaten with one hand, nor at your desk, and it isn’t accompanied by a cappuccino. The Proper Spanish Lunch is composed of two main courses, as much bread as you need, a glass of wine, and dessert. If you also need coffee, you can swap your dessert for one or pay the extra, but don’t assume it’ll come with chocolate sprinkles.

The Proper Spanish Lunch is a meal that symbolises an in-between space in my research, and, naturally, in my life. It is eaten with people who have helped me get from one place to another, and with whom I’ve enjoyed the time (moments and years) in between.

You don’t get anywhere without in-between spaces. If you go from a place you know to a place you absolutely don’t understand, you’re lost. But if you have a stepping stone, you can follow the familiar paths into the unknown space. That’s my route for weaving my way from understanding English and Spanish into French. It’s also the route I’ve used to reach Morocco: using what I understand about Spain to help me cross the Euro-African cultural divide. When you start from Spain, that distance is only 8 miles.

Lunch in Spain is quite literally called ‘la comida’ The Food. This is a very accurate description, because if you play the eating times game well, ‘la comida’ will be The Food of your day. Lunch is at about 2pm. For your first course (equal to the second in size) you have something like an enormous salad/lentils/soup, therefore meeting the RDA* for vitamins (hopefully). For your second course you have something of higher protein and prestige accompanied by even more vegetables, and even more bread. An example of this is the magnificent fish my friend effortlessly whipped up for us even just for a hungover Sunday lunch. Follow with dessert: either choose one of many different variations on the theme of ‘custard’, or alternatively a piece of fruit. Finally, coffee, to help you move again after The Food.

After Proper Spanish Lunch you are absolutely free until about 10pm because if you followed the instructions above, you won’t be hungry until then. Hence, if it’s a working day, far from being lazy, you can work until 6, 7 or 8pm, and then go out for a drink afterwards and then get home for 10pm to have dinner. Amazing. This only happens in the UK one day of the year, Christmas Day, when we indulge so much in the accompanying drinks we are good for nothing by the time it gets dark.

So what’s the relation with Morocco? Well this is where Northern Europe meets Northern Africa. Remove the alcohol and Proper Spanish Lunch looks less like Christmas Day in the UK and more like the salad or beans followed by Tagine in Morocco. More importantly, as in Morocco, time is made for eating in Spain. Someone has also made even more time: this is properly cooked food. I have yet to have a Proper Spanish Lunch with boil-in-the-bag rice, a pot noodle or boxed sandwiches.

Finally, the ‘in-between’ role of Spain, not only in my life, but also in my research, came into real relief this past week. It is extremely difficult for a Moroccan to get a UK visa, however, for some, it is not so difficult to get to Spain. Spain is part of the Schengen Area and so the close ties (linguistic, business, educational, family) mean that many Moroccans can get long term visas of several years to travel to countries like France and Spain with whom there have been very long term ties, and therefore the wider Schengen Area.

So although I had said goodbye to Morocco for the time-being following fieldwork, I was able to meet my Moroccan colleagues at a seminar last week in the very fitting, and in-between, Spanish context. So I’ve done a bad job of coming home from Morocco and staying put (the first week of term might have been easier without such opportunities to keep the doors open to research and maybe my sister should have confiscated my passport after all). Yet I can also see that Proper Spanish Lunches, and particularly this time with my Moroccan colleagues, are going to be absolutely key to keeping my research alive, and to keeping me going, perhaps until 10pm.

*Recommended Daily Allowance