Living through a food chain

By SAMHITA BAROOAH

Have you wondered about how food arrived on our plates? Apart from the food which is procured from the markets and super stores packed and priced, how can food sustain livelihoods of communities.  Food used to be grown, gathered, processed, stored, packaged, priced and sold, consumed and disposed. In all these stages peoples’ livelihoods are connected. Nature has its own food chain which is determined by weblink of diverse species responsible for food. Food is the most important living truth for human beings. Without food life itself will be jeopardised. We relish every morsal of food that reaches us in some form or the other if we are satisfied with its texture, flavour, aroma, taste and portions. So in recent times, food has turned into an industry which functions with the market choices, controlled by prices, powerful associations and food producers. Nature produces food but human hands and skills makes food accessible to all communities cutting across the intersections of class, language, tribe, caste, gender, disability,  age and nationality. Food chain livelihoods gained a lot of relevance in the era of globalisation and neoliberal economies, where huge profits were earned by multinational food chains across the developed and developing countries. Food chains were determined not by seasons, natural cycles, food crop growers or individual bodily requirements but only by profits and powerful vested interest groups whose main objective was to earn profit and hold power. Thus food chains became the determinants of livelihoods for the marginal food growers, gatherers, food collectors, food processors and sellers. Food chain livelihoods at the local level are collective in nature and they are coordinated with cohesive community structures, whereas when food chains reach the trade centres and global markets individual and privatised bodies primarily dominate such enterprises. Food chain livelihoods are beneficial to vulnerable groups as they provide food all year round with the same quality and content. People get used to a particular product, palate and price when it comes to food and then such an enterprise starts functioning. Sometimes a particular food item needs different kinds of ingredients. Livelihoods are interlinked in the provision of such food chain ingredients also. In Nagaland food chains are sustained through community solidarity and support. 

In a Chakhesang village of Nagaland, I have come across diverse livelihood patterns which are connected to the food chain. These livelihoods are primarily meant for rural women. Rural women are food crop growers, seedkeepers, wild fruit and nut collectors, uncultivated herbs, weeds and tuber gatherers, agriculture crop harvestors, food crop processors, cash crop field labourers and cultivators, homegarden growers and managers,  food crop sellers on the highway and even processed fruit, nuts, berries, spices and rice cake sellers in petty shops.

In Kohima city almost all the street vendors are women who sell home grown herbs, leavy vegetables, bitter nuts, tree tomatoes, bamboo shoot, akhuni or fermented soyabean, chillies and bananas along with all varieties of wood worms, eels, local salt, silk worms, honey combs, mushrooms and varieties of yam which completes the food choices of diverse customers in a multi-tribal socio cultural milieu of Kohima. Such women street vendors provide a plethora of local foods which is organic and nutritious but they have to struggle hard for their street spaces. Women vendors do not find enough all weather vending space on the streets which fetches them enough profit to run their households and mainly help them educate their children. Some women vendors face multiple vulnerabilities of lack of bank access to make savings, while a few of them suffer from serious health conditions which affects their livelihoods adversely. Most of the vendors have to abide by heavy tax collection by the state and non state actors who helps them to protect their products after the market closes down. Adequate storage facilities are also available which is why the loss of perishable food produce is relatively high. As one of vendors shared, “our customers look for clean, big and colourful greens and other foods and consistently bargain for a fair price.”  Many street vendors also give food items on credit and reduces the prices for students and hostelers in the city. It was also very interesting to notice that the women vendors did not keep any scales or mechanical weighing devices to measure quantities of the food items. They knew exactly how much of the produce should be stacked or packed in plastic bags or tied with a banana fibre. Accordingly the pricing of the produce was done. Such rural women did street vending to sustain their own savings as well which will be different from the household income. But most of the women vendors were breadwinners and took the major share of their household responsibilities on themselves. North East Network a women’s organisation in Kohima has been working tirelessly with the street vendors in Kohima and Dimapur to form street vendor unions in collaboration with SEWA so that the strengths of collective bargaining are adequately realised by the women vendors working under vulnerable conditions. NEN also organised the street vendor unions to strengthen them with skills of financial literacy, detergent and liquid dish washing material making and access to information on state sponsored schemes which they could avail in future. Such a holistic approach is very important for women vendors to survive the risks of market fluctuations,  violent homes and class divide within an urban setting.

Rural livelihoods in Nagaland which promotes the food chains are also very closely monitored and sustained through the innovative interventions of state agencies like the Department for Women Development,  Government of Nagaland through their product range named as myki meaning women in the Nagamese which is the adapted lingua franca of entire Nagaland. Different food products like puffed rice, dried chillies, dried wild apples, garlic powder, turmeric powder, dried rozelle and basil leaves , ready to eat cooked products like akhuni and anishi are also packaged in light weight,  stand up zip pouches which are very handy and convenient to carry and store for a long time till opened. Such food products are also climate resistent and can be made available throughout the year. Rural women are collectivised through 1200 Self Help Groups connecting 18000 women from across the state and enagaged in such gainful livelihood activities which supplies the food products and completes the food chain.

Food chains are just a very small part of the rural economy which ensures communities to sustain the traditional aromas inside modern packets and transfer such products to different parts of the country and the world. Livelihoods are entwined within the food crop ecosystem without which people in remote and rough terrains of Nagalaand will be left with acute resource crunch and abject poverty in a emerging cash driven economy.

(This piece is written under the aegis of CSE media fellowship on Good Food. )

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah is a Researcher and Travel Writer.