Give A Man A Fish

I once spent a couple of weeks asking myself, “How can a nation, or even just a city, cheaply deal with a scarcity of food for the poor, together with a plenitude of cheapbad food (whether fast or home-made) which harms ones health?” I came up with the Streetfood Initiative (still in planning, I am sorry to say.)

Up here in the great white north we have plenty of poorly fed, obese, and diabetic people. We’re good — but not perfect. Our local food bank alone fed about 36,000 people four years ago when I last looked up the data, and the numbers have risen since then.

I proposed that a network of carts and tiny kiosks be set up to give away Streetfood to anyone who asks.

It would not infringe on the fast food industry because it would not be the sort of addictive mix of fat-sugar-salt-starch that they specialize in. All offerings would be vegetarian, though spicy and nutritionally balanced. Rice, lentils, curry, stews, and stir-fry type recipes, each serving handed over in an edible container, like a hollowed breadroll or a unsweetened ice cream cone type cup, using a minimum of wrapping. Recipes would be public, on the net, and available at the cart for the asking.

The carts and kiosks would be funded through general revenue, with the understanding that savings and benefits would show up elsewhere: less diabetes, better performance in the schools, fewer malnourished drunks taking up hospital beds, fewer proud starving seniors, and so on.

How much rice, lentils and beans can you buy for what it costs to care for one blind, amputee diabetic? Lots and lots, I bet.

Another effect I hoped for (perhaps the core effect) would be to alter people’s ideas of what “food” is.

We generally consider the food we grew up with to be real food, and stuff encountered later as foreign, peculiar or even non-food. Diet is partly choice, true — but much of what we consider choice comes down to imprinting.

Jared Diamon, in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”: wrote about why the Norse settlements on Greenland failed. He said

“Looking back on these settlements from our vantage point today, we can observe that the Norse were imperceptibly following practices which weren’t sustainable in their environment in Greenland. These practices were as follows:
•Chopped down forests to use wood for fuel, furniture and houses
•Used cleared land for grazing cows
•Built houses out of 6-foot slabs of turf which meant a home consumed about 10 acres of grassland
These practices weren’t sustainable… Looking back the Norse Greenlanders should have learned from the Inuit to hunt seals as the most reliable food source in winter. But they preferred beef and didn’t like seal. The Norse also should have eaten fish. If they had, they may have survived.”

I consider canned mushroom soup to be a staple, along with bananas, potato chips, and frozen pizza. My grandmother, born in the late 1800s, most likely would never have seen these when she was growing up.

But what if a generation of children grew up eating delicious street food? Presented correctly, it could become the circus and state-fair finger food for a whole population of youngsters, and help introduce people to a diet that doesn’t subvert their health.

As for the free rider problem — bring ’em on. In an inversion of the old saw, we could be a culture where “the wealthy, as well as the poor, are permitted to eat Streetfood all they wish.”

Up here, a person generally has to be below 37% of our poverty line before they will go to a food bank. People who need the food still won’t go until truly desperate. I think the potential for free riders is less than one might imagine, and meanwhile — they will learn different tastes.