Saturday, June 19, 2010

My $25 bag of cherries

Last year, I visited Caracas, Venezuela, several times. Why Caracas? Well that's whole complicated story about love and loss. But instead of getting into that, I thought I'd share my experience with imported fruit.

The other day on my way home from work I stopped at a corner store and spied the first Ontario grown strawberries of the year. Well of course I snatched up two containers and felt joy well up in my soul with the thought of the first taste of one of those beautiful, small and flavor packed berries. The store owner told me that people weren't interested in buying the Ontario strawberries over the USA imported strawberries because they cost more. To me they are two completely different fruits. You can't compare the taste. The giant often flavourless imported strawberries are a sad cousin of the real deal.

I got in the car and ate several berries without washing them. Yum. And I know over the next two weeks, the Ontario strawberries for sale are only going to get better.

So this fruit experience made me think about the $25 bag of cherries I had in Caracas. We were driving through Caracas and he spotted a truck with a sign advertising cherries. He asked me, "Do you want some cherries?". I said sure not realizing what a huge deal it was to get your hands on cherries in Caracas. He returned to the car and presented my one pound gift. I casually asked him how much they cost. He said $25 USD. I said "What?! Tell me how much they cost in Bolivars." He told me and yes, in fact, he had done the math correctly. It was one of the sweetest gifts I've ever received.

I just thought I'd put our own circumstances in perspective. This is taken from Food: Something's Rotten in Venezuela, June 7, 2010.

Tens of thousands of tonnes of basic foods rotted in the last year in shipping containers belonging to the Venezuelan government. Fully two-thirds of the food consumed by Venezuela's 27 million inhabitants is imported.

'One might think it is carelessness or negligence. If that is the case, there should be a sanction, but it could also be corruption,' President Hugo Chávez said last week as the scandal emerged. 'We will get to the bottom of this case,' he pledged in his weekly Sunday column.

Some 35,000 tonnes of beef, pork and chicken, milk and dairy products, vegetable oil, flour, sugar and salt were in 1,200 shipping containers found abandoned in Puerto Cabello, a port 150 kilometres northwest of Caracas.

A similar quantity was found in another 1,100 trucks several months ago in a lot in Venezuela's central plains.

'It's a shame that food is lost as a result of irresponsible actions of who knows which officials, when there are so many people going hungry and searching from market to market to see if they can afford to buy everything they need,' Aminta Sánchez, a nurse who lives with her daughters and a son- in-law in the densely populated west side of Caracas, told IPS.

According to official figures, at least six percent of Venezuelan population suffers from malnutrition -- about the same percentage that the government says lives in extreme poverty.

Chávez quickly absolved Energy Minister and PDVSA president Rafael Ramírez and ordered him to launch a 'counterattack against the oligarchy,' the opposition elite who he blames for manipulating the situation, noting that the volume of food lost 'is less than one percent of the flow of foods that do reach the people.'

Together, the Venezuelan government and private sector import about 8 billion dollars in food annually. The main imports are milk, butter, cheese, beef, chicken, vegetable oils, flour, sugar, maize and beans, as well as products that used to be Venezuelan exports, such as coffee, which now comes from Nicaragua.

The leading suppliers of food are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and, until political tensions erupted last year, Colombia.

The government, which preaches food security, in the last three years has intervened in numerous farms of all sizes and in agro-industrial companies, both domestic and foreign. It has also shut down or fined everyone from major supermarket chains to modest butcher shops, all to ensure the availability of inexpensive food.

Annualised inflation for food stands at 41 percent, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela, and although the government's National Institute of Statistics says the minimum salary -- about 250 dollars a month -- covers the basic food basket, trade union organisations say at least twice that sum is needed.

For several months each year, there are shortages in the government's grocery stores of meat and dairy products, oils, flour, cereals and sugar. These items can be found in the informal street markets, but at twice the price.

In part, the difficulties are related to the rupture of trade ties with neighbouring Colombia as a result of diplomatic and political disputes. Colombia was a big supplier of meat, dairy and potatoes.

So maybe the local strawberries I bought the other day cost an extra $1 but so what. We have it so so good here. Let's stop griping about shit and start appreciating how fortunate we are to live here in Canada. Most of us can find anything we want to eat any time of year. Not that food security is perfect in Canada but those of us living in abundance in Canada ought to enjoy every strawberry as a gift. And if you really want to get your hands dirty, go pick them yourself with your family. I was going to go last weekend but the weather didn't cooperate.

Here's the name and location of a U Pick place in Stouffville:

Applewood Farm 12442 McCowan Rd. (905) 642 - 4720. Call first to make sure the field hasn't been fully picked.

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