Thursday, December 7, 2023

Food ministry would seize covid moment

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A nation that manages to unite and fight covid-19 is well placed to draw breath, reform and address its next big campaign – supporting, nurturing and promoting Kiwi food. Food writer, editor and chef Lauraine Jacobs believes New Zealand is at a time that cannot be wasted, where our efforts on dealing with covid-19 put us in the global spotlight and having a Ministry of Food could ensure our high-quality produce gets to share that spotlight. She spoke to Richard Rennie.
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Foodie Lauraine Jacobs says the concept of a Ministry of Food is not new and first mooted in 2006 by food writer Kate Fraser.

“It is a debate that has been ongoing but never come to fruition. Now it is time that it did.”

As the primary sector has grappled with perceived rural-urban divides, environmental criticism, labour challenges and debt stress its collective purpose  to produce high-quality, nutritious food for the local population and earn valuable export dollars has been lost on central government.

But Jacobs says that has changed and now more than before the sector has the Government’s attention. 

There is a tacit recognition food will set the course out of economic challenges for the foreseeable future. 

But to achieve that by simply focusing on farmers and growers alone will not be enough.

A Food Ministry could provide a common roof for the entire food chain.

 It would also be the agent to focus New Zealanders, young and old, rural and urban, rich and poor on something that everyone engages with.

“We produce some of the best food and wine in the world and this is at a time when more people than ever are paying close attention to what they eat and are cooking for themselves and their family, proudly posting it on social media.”

The covid crisis has set the stage for NZ food to be in the spotlight and put some actors in place to start a campaign that could benefit from ministry horsepower behind it.

“We have seen Massimo Bottura, regarded as one of the best chefs in the world with a three star Michelin restaurant in Modena, promoting superb NZ produce on his Instagram post, where he’s been cooking at home on his #KitchenQuarantine video site.

“We need this sort of promotion, a hash tag for our food products to go even wider and someone heading it up, ideally a good minister.” 

The worldwide social media audience for messages and images from NZ is already estimated by Facebook to be about a billion people.

And just as former Prime Minister John Key assumed the role of tourism minister to give that nascent sector a boost, she believes Jacinda Ardern with her rising global appeal is the ideal head for a Food Ministry.

She agrees NZ’s national pride is well charged now as the country deals with Ccovid and, ideally, could be channelled to pivot to all things NZ food.

“And it is encouraging when you already see the PM behind the support-local campaign that has been running.”

Jacobs was horrified, however, to see guidelines around children’s nutrition discouraging dairy and red meat in diets.

“That really is tantamount to treason.”

Jacobs points to other countries that have recognised the disconnect in their food supply chains and are working on national strategies to preserve local production and improve links.

“The United Kingdom has launched its National Food Strategy initiative. It is the first review in 75 years and it aims to address the entire food system, including environment, health, jobs and the role everyone plays in it.”

As the rest of the world stares at its apartment walls, listlessly counting off days of government-imposed imprisonment, Jacobs believes NZ’s enduring appeal of its clean-green environment has leapt to another level with a clean-green, covid-free lifestyle. 

Travel here is difficult for the foreseeable future. 

But a sliver of the NZ oasis can be sampled by enjoying our quality food and drink, almost as an act of escapism amid covid lockdowns.

“The likes of me as a food writer have spent the last 35 years banging on about how you can cook good food at home. But it took a global pandemic to make people do it and suddenly they are engaged and interested in cooking quality food.

“This is our big moment and we can’t waste it.”

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