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 can 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.

I could eat some things on the menu but not all, so I was given a cardboard box of meal options so I could choose something for each day that I’d be able to eat. 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, 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 in 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. I hoped some might taste better than they looked and wondered how many I might replace some with things 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 round 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.

Seasonal migrant guestworkers get a raw deal in UK government scheme up for renewal in 2022

The threat of imminent food shortages are forcing a major rethink of post-Brexit UK immigration policy. An expansion in the UK’s temporary migrant visa programme was rushed through in September in an effort to restore order at petrol stations, get meat processing plants back at full capacity, and ensure supermarket shelves are fully stocked for Christmas. This was widely publicised in the news, but people may be less aware that the Government scheme for all seasonal agricultural workers, from the EU and beyond, is due to end in December. What eventually replaces the ‘Seasonal Worker Pilot’ will have lasting repercussions.

Brexit and the return of the migrant guestworker

It has been estimated that 98% of seasonal workers in the UK food industry come from elsewhere in Europe. Despite a recent softening in attitudes of local UK workers towards the sector, there is reason to believe that the majority of workers in British horticulture will continue to come from abroad (principally Eastern Europe). Prior to Brexit, and under EU Freedom of Movement, these workers were able to enter the UK with their passports or ID cards and move between jobs according to their needs, the demands for their labour, and how satisfied they were with the working conditions. Brexit signalled the end of free movement and, for EU migrants now wanting to work in the UK, the options open to them are significantly more constrained than in the past. The Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme underlines this point and marks a transition to a system where the rights of UK-based workers are greater than the rights of low-wage migrant ‘guests’. Under the pilot scheme, workers may enter the UK for up to six months, are restricted to work in edible horticulture, and are placed with an employer by one of four intermediaries, which makes movement between workplaces difficult. The SWP was set up in 2019 and whilst initially capped at 2,500 workers currently (in 2021) accommodates up to 30,000 workers per annum.

Geographical Openness but Social Closure

The move away from freedom of movement towards guestworker migration, driven by Brexit, has brought with it more openness geographically in the sense that the UK employers can now look further for low-wage harvest workers. However, with this geographical openness has come a social closure: where workers are denied rights and entitlements, and kept at arm’s length in a state of permanent temporariness. This puts seasonal migrant workers at significant risk of poverty and exploitation. The social closure we have seen, and are likely to see, is far from ideal and indicates a problematic trend towards the normalisation of guestworker migration policies. Globally, guestworker schemes like the Seasonal Workers Pilot, effectively mean that home-grown workers have greater rights and freedoms than migrant ‘guests’, even when doing the same job. The UK’s new temporary migrants therefore occupy a far more precarious position in the labour market than EU migrants did under Freedom of Movement.

Time to Listen to the Workers

As freedom of movement ended and as guestworker visas emerged in their place, we found no evidence that workers’ views informed this shift or that workers’ experiences on the seasonal pilot were taken into account when deciding to extend and expand the scheme for 2020 and 2021. Listening to workers and worker representatives, however, one finds evidence of flaws in the guestworker model. For example, a 2021 report by FLEX and Fife Migrants Forum (FMF) found significant problems in the seasonal workers pilot with migrants seen to be at increased risk of trafficking for forced labour. As one of just four core labour standards agreed internationally, workers should also have access to representation. A lack of representation via trade unions or other forms of freedom of association is even more notable considering current safeguarding arrangements. Under the current Pilot system, the same operators are responsible for workers’ welfare and immigration enforcement. Research from around the world has found that where labour protections are linked to immigration control, immigration control undermines labour rights and migrant workers are left at high risks of abuse.

A New Year’s Resolution?

In late 2020, the SWP was extended and expanded at the very last minute without workers’ insights. We are hoping that, for 2022, a more considered and transparent policy decision emerges, underpinned by workers’ views and experiences, and producing an overall more equal and less exploitative policy resolution. Whatever one thinks of the principle of guestworker migration, there are clearly improvements that can be made to this increasingly popular migration and employment policy.

Five key adjustments stand out that are pertinent to the UK SWP, and beyond:

  • Most immediately, all low-wage guestworker schemes should make it possible not only in theory but also in practice to change employers. At present, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that seasonal workers, if they are unhappy at a workplace, can move elsewhere. The issue of being tied to an employer is further exacerbated if one considers that most seasonal workers will also live onsite, often in relatively remote rural areas.
  • Secondly, a minimum guaranteed income should be available to seasonal workers so that whatever the weather, and however consumer demand varies, workers will know that leaving friends and family back home as they move temporarily to work abroad is financially worthwhile.
  • Third, for those workers who return season after season there should be a pathway to permanent residency, a pathway that may become accessible after say five years. Having regularly contributed to a country guestworkers should eventually be welcomed to settle permanently.
  • To avoid creating a two-tier system of national and migrant workers, workers committing to contribute to a nation’s economy should get full access to the public services that they may need during their time in the UK such as access to the NHS and other public funds.
  • Finally, when devising labour migration and employment policy affecting precarious workers workers’ experiences should be taken into account by governments alongside the requirements of business.  

In the absence of systems of free movement, guestworker schemes have emerged globally to supply businesses with low-wage labour and this is especially true in horticulture. In the UK, and beyond, a new year’s resolution is now necessary if we are to address migrant exploitation through this guestworker model and give hard-working migrants the reception they deserve.

The above article was authored by Dr Lydia Medland of the University of Bristol and Dr Sam Scott of the University of Gloucestershire and first published by the Countryside and Community Research Institute.

I am currently looking for respondents for the ‘Working for five a day’ research project. If you are working in the UK fruit and vegetable sector (as a grower or farm worker) please complete the survey here: https://spais.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/5-a-day

A Rotten Deal: Tomato Pickers and Online Shopping

The ‘click’ of an on-line shop allows shoppers to order in a new way, but has moved the consumer one step further away from the farmers and workers who grow and harvest food. Where do these orders end up? How do they connect to the experiences and struggles of farm workers who are ever more invisible at the other end of long supply chains?

I ask this question in relation to one crop, a food that served as a juicy red star of early supermarket adverts on the side of new inner city delivery vans: the cherry tomato. For my PhD fieldwork I learned two languages (French and Moroccan Arabic), and with a working, but far from perfect, knowledge of each, travelled to Southern Morocco where I lived alongside workers who respond to the demands of our daily, weekly or monthly orders for fresh food. These workers, the majority of whom are poor Moroccan women who are internal migrants to the region, plant, pick and pack the majority of tomatoes that are exported to Europe. In a recently published article based on this study, I explore the time imperatives of this export-orientated network bringing us the rosy fruit, at the click of an online order.

The notion of the ‘order’ is interesting. While most conversation in the region of Chtouka Ait Baha in Southern Morocco was in Arabic, certain words, as is the tradition in Moroccan Arabic, remained in French. ‘Demand’ was one of these; ‘le demand’ was the French for ‘order’. This mechanism of connection with the rich world, mediated via algorithms and computer systems in which fresh produce is bought and sold, is not negotiated, but ‘ordered’, or ‘demanded’. The orders are demanded in a just-in-time system where time connections that link us through this system exert daily, yearly and lifelong pressures upon workers in enclaves of production.

The impacts on working conditions follow the demand pressures. Hours of work are established by the requirements of freshness of the crops and the orders from retailers and intermediaries. For example, tomatoes should not stay in storage for more than two days. Therefore, if an order is not complete, workers must stay an extra two hours, perhaps late into the night. This is an inconvenience in any context, but a dangerous one where women workers are vulnerable to harassment and are warned not to be in the streets after dark. I met many frightened women returning from the late shift.

Needed but not valued

Agricultural workers have recently been recognised as ‘essential’. Yet, the way their work is valued remains unchanged. If anything, it has become more hidden with fewer consumers in shops looking closely at labels and asking questions. Across the world agricultural workers are undervalued and underpaid, despite being essential.

In Morocco, agricultural workers’ minimum wages provide a benchmark around which actual wages sit at and below. The legal minimum wage for agriculture is significantly lower than for other ‘industrial’ sectors creating an in-built sectoral discrimination. While industrial workers earn between £8-9 per day, agricultural workers’ wages are set between £5-6 per day. This is a fraction of minimum wages in the UK, and still a fraction of the wages of other low-paid agricultural workers in Southern Europe. This makes the reason for an increasing supply of food from Morocco to the UK and Northern Europe, crystal clear. The work is cheap, and this is assumed to be acceptable whatever the social costs.

Nature, social and reproductive time

It is easy to pose the plight of such workers overseas against those working in the UK. Yet, workers in countries like the UK, have perhaps more in common with workers at the end of long supply chains than is often recognised. In the contemporary context, workers in agri-industrial sectors are pulled by the same multiple imperatives of time. They work within both the disciplinary time logics and pressures of what EP Thompson recognised decades ago as nature’s time (weather, seasons and daylight cycles) and industrial time (regulated by clocks, agreed time-frames and integrated markets), as well as what we must recognise today as ‘social reproductive time’; that time involving domestic and care work, as well as the reproduction of society itself through having and raising the children who become the next generation of workers.

What all these undervalued but ‘essential’ food and farm workers have in common is that they must meet and respond to the ‘orders’ and demands of retailers who stimulate, mediate and rearticulate the demands of consumers. Online orders add a little more distance to a system of production in which invisible time pressures are already one of the crucial connections between workers and consumers.

The online order does not typically provide a country of origin on its fresh fruit and vegetables. So, if you choose a packet of tomatoes online, it will say which countries the food might be sourced from, but often not the one that it was actually produced in. Are these really tomatoes from nowhere? If we understood more about contexts of production, it would be easier to build connection with workers and employers, rather than increasing the layers of invisibility and control behind the order.

This blog was originally published in issue 19 of the Futures of Work online magazine. The original link to this blogpiece is here. The image is the Author’s own.

A ‘fresh’ start

For many years now, I have been researching work in food production ‘out there’: beyond the reach of a day trip and in languages that are not my own. I found the Moroccan tomato so interesting that I wrote a thesis on it. Now though, I want to know what’s occurring closer to home. What of the food produced in the UK? Who is working in the fields? Who is taking the risk that the supermarkets will buy their produce or not? Who is footing the bill, personally, socially, emotionally, for keeping the food coming into cities despite Covid 19, and despite Brexit? After farm work was recognised as ‘essential’ during the pandemic, have workers gained status, or simply more health and safety challenges?

It is to these questions that I am now turning. I want to know who is working to feed Bristol and how they are getting on. More specifically, I want to know about fruit and veg; that food group that we all eat. Vegan, vegetarian, meat eater or flexitarian; we all eat some fruit and veg. Even if it is highly processed into a form with higher ‘added value’: perhaps a smoothie or the filling in a pre-prepared lasagne. What’s more, the UK government want us to eat a specific quantity: five portions a day. Scientists also estimate that if everyone in the UK ate these recommended portions, then our average carbon emissions would go down because fruit and veg have, in many (but not all) ways, a lower impact on ecosystems than other food groups.

How workers and farmers are getting on isn’t just important in its own right, but it also affects food security overall. This is particularly so in regards to exactly those foods which we need more of in this stressful, challenging climate, when it is all too easy to reach for the beer, or the chocolate or the ice cream. Not that I want to get into the business of identifying good and bad foods, they all feed us. Nevertheless, dealing with the coronavirus epidemic and the news that obesity is a major risk factor in suffering badly from the virus, brings fruit and veg into the policy arena again. In the new plan to tackle growing rates of obesity, adverts for fast food will be curtailed before 9pm and there will be a ban on ‘buy one get one free’ offers on sugary and fatty foods, with new encouragement for shops to promote fruit and vegetables. Yet while the focus is on consumers and their needs, the availability of fresh ingredients for this pro-health recipe goes unquestioned. OK, apples do grow on trees, but they must still be picked.

Some people will have seen other news stories. Of crops rotting in the fields last autumn, of seasonal workers flown to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria in the middle of a pandemic, working when everyone else is asked to stay at home. Putting their own lives at risk when white collar workers are ushered inside. More stories, of a lack of seasonal workers and of British workers signing up when for a long time such work has fallen disproportionately to migrant and European workers [1]. These stories alter as we draw back from the pandemic and its outbreaks, through Brexit, and prior to Brexit. Yet the question of who feeds us and how, at what costs and taking on what risks, remains for many of us, out of sight and out of mind.

So this is my new project, and I start this week. In my kitchen, because we’re in a pandemic and that’s where I have a garden table standing in as a desk. I do want to reach out though. So, if you are, or know a farmer or worker in this sector, please get in touch, I would love to listen to your experiences and your challenges. Or even come and see them. I’ve taken flights and chased questions about food to places that look like they will produce answers, simply through their seductive difference to my own normality. Now I am interested in the everyday difficulties in the details faced by farmers and workers in the UK. I’m not looking for heroes and villains, but simply for people who work in the food system.

To be specific, my project focuses on the conventional (not organic) side of the sector. This is simply because it feeds the majority of our country and the city I live in. That could be those who produce vegetables that end up in packaging branded with union jacks, but which otherwise, are just normal. Just simple apples, or tomatoes, or cucumbers, with lots of plastic and stickers, or none at all. I want to consider conventional scale production as close to home as possible and marvel at its successes, struggles and contradictions. Considering ONS data and recent analysis we can observe that only 1-2% of workers in the UK works in agriculture, yet nearly 50% of food consumed in the UK is produced here [2]. How is this done? At what cost? Who is helping and making sacrifices so that the apples keep coming and the carrots arrive fresh and looking perfect.

A chard seedling attempting to grow in my patio garden.

1. See, Scott, S. (2013), Labour, Migration and the Spatial Fix: Evidence from the UK Food Industry. Antipode, 45: 1090-1109. doi:10.1111/anti.12023

2. The estimate depends on the interpretation of data and could be considered as much as 60%, see, Lang, T. (2020). Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and what to Do about Them. Pelican. p., 26

Of Sardines and Stamps, Ethics and Risk

International Sardines

I have been waiting a while to talk about my fieldwork through the prism of the sardine can. It started the day I went to visit my flat for the second time and decided to rent it. I broke one of the main two anti-risk rules, not of the ethics committee, but of my Mum. Number one is ‘don’t go in the park after dark’, and it was the second one that got broken: ‘never get in a car with strangers’. I’ve known these rules since I could talk. They pre-date the commitments I made on the Bristol University risk assessment form by about 28 years.

Now technically, it wasn’t me that broke the rule. I was being taken to ‘Thursday’ by an older lady from a charitable association who was helping a local nursery. We were waiting for a taxi and a car drove up – as often happens – and offered to give us a lift for free. Now if I’m on my own, I always say no. I wasn’t on my own though and it was the lady who knew the area well, who decided that the driver was a totally trustworthy individual. So maybe he genuinely did drive up that way once a week and always offer lifts to people going his way, or maybe he wanted to practice his language skills with the foreigner.

In any case, we didn’t get kidnapped, we got free sardines. It turns out that sardines are the global supply chain next door. In the next city along from me there are sardine canning factories and in one of these this multi-lingual middle-manager takes on about 600 women a year. You might have noticed, these sardines speak our language, in fact they say they are from those well-trusted local shops, Sainsbury’s and Tescos. But I don’t have them because I love sardines so much that I brought them here in my suitcase. And thankfully, Tescos hasn’t arrived in Morocco yet. They actually came from the car boot of this complimentary taxi.

There weren’t just sardines packed up and ready for Sainsbury’s and Tescos, there were also some for French supermarkets too. In the local shop I also saw some speaking what looked like Polish and German. So Sainsbury’s might imply that the sardines are theirs, whipped out of a global store cupboard by them, but they weren’t. They were fished out of African waters and packed by Moroccan women. I’m not trying to inspire guilt here, as far as I know sardines are a relatively plentiful fish and not on any blacklists for overfishing as yet. It gives me an opportunity though to think about what things say on the tin. Slight change of topic coming up.

We give a lot of importance in the UK to getting the paperwork in order and the stamps in the right place. I’m part of that. I want to be an ethical researcher and have all the paperwork in order to prove it. These last two weeks I’ve spent a lot of time chasing paper. It’s taken me on an interesting journey of offices, and past flags, in which I donned my suit jacket and got rid of any scarfs at the entrance. I’ve been kindly asked by people willing to help in these offices “Do you have a problem?”. I say, “Well no, not really, I’d just like to know that you are happy that I’m here doing research”. The response is, “you are welcome here, good luck”. So, if in person there seems to be no problem, how much paper is necessary? We decided, on the 10th floor of a government office, that a stamp would be a good start. So I have travelled for 18 hours this week and returned triumphantly with a very small government stamp on my piece of paper marked 12th October 2016.

Where are sardines from? Probably the most truthful answer would be to say ‘the sea’. But in our paper and classification hungry society, I, with my letters and requests, want to brand my work just like Sainsbury’s and Tescos.¹

In reality, the guarantees given by these labels and stamps often end up deceptive or meaningless. The treasured pieces of paper I would really like are not the guarantee of my research being ethical or not. The sardines are, and aren’t, really Sainsbury’s. In the same way, the commitments to ethical procedures and risk aversion are only the beginning of a negotiation of risks and ethics.² Occasionally, not getting in a car with ‘strangers’ isn’t necessarily going to reduce my risk (although I avoid it wherever possible!). Perhaps what we need to develop is the ability to believe or seriously consider what we see and feel and what we are told and experience face to face. Fish really do come from the sea, and in most cases, so long as I keep doing my best to be a good, and ethically aware guest, I really am welcome in Morocco.

Notes

Sorry some photos are stuck on my phone and it isn’t wifi or data connected.

¹ If this were an academic essay rather than a blog, I’d reference Scott, and his argument that we simplify and harm complex realities when we try to ‘see like a state’. JAMES C. SCOTT, Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale University Press 1998)

² I read that my approach here is of ethical relativism. This book is really helping me work through dilemmas and practicalities, for anyone about to do fieldwork I recommend it: REGINA SCHEYVENS & DONOVAN STOREY, Development fieldwork: a practical guide. 2nd Edition (Sage 2014).