x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

1,001 Arabian Bites: With food prices, we must consider value

With the world growing, it's still possible to feed a person on Dh10 a day, but we must be sensible.

Food prices are relative and we must think about value

There's no exercise more exhausting than vigorous negotiation. Before my annual visit to the old souq in Sharjah to visit my favoured dealer, I have to mentally lull myself into a meditative state.

My mother's brilliant, uncompromising, take-no-prisoners approach to haggling is second to none. I used to be a spineless worm next to her, too focused on shoehorning a happy ending into a less-than-pleasant shopping experience. Many would argue that you can have one or the other, but not both. I'm less complacent now than I used to be and if I cannot procure what I want justly, fairly, and ethically, then I don't want it at all.

What's the real cost of something? The answer, in sales, is: whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Abu Dhabi veterans will remember the old fish souq, where I first observed my mother's silver tongue and steely resolve at their most elemental, and it instilled the fear of fish in me - and perhaps a fear of souqs. Most of all, it taught me the value of fighting for something I want and the value of learning how to walk away from it.

Value is subjective, determined by how much something is worth to the person who wants it. We move through our daily patterns of consumption with some idea of what our standards of living are, and our personal values, and our limitations. Each of us has an idea of what we should be paying, for shelter, for food, for health care, for an education - and then a whole separate menu of what we could pay, or would pay, or can't pay, or won't.

A current trend in hotels with an inclusive meals policy is to offer guests the illusion of luxury by using flexibility to manipulate, stupefy, and hoodwink. With a couple of exceptions for pricier supplements that can include caviar and foie gras, everything is game.

At more reasonably priced hotels, have-it-your-way has a predictably approachable feel. Meals are served buffet-style or cafeteria-style in grand dining halls - and are almost guaranteed to brim with mediocrity, whether in the hotel's diluted version of some local speciality, or at the omelette station, or throughout the salad bar. Ironically, it is situations such as this, where one is meant to feel overwhelmed by abundance, that are the most depressing to me and leave me feeling most melancholy about the fate of our species.

Non-profit organisations are famous for using hooks in their slogans such as: "For less than the cost of a cup of coffee, you can afford to feed lunch to this starving child... and her entire kindergarten classroom." But there's a reason why these tactics are not particularly effective, and it starts with the fact that most people don't want to be made to feel bad about how they spend money. American public schools are allotted around US$2.50 (Dh9.18) a day to spend on each pupil's lunch. It's a price that seems disturbingly low until I remember that with Dh10, kids in the UAE can eat reasonably well, if a little recklessly.

I loved my school diet, but my health-conscious parents practised damage control with a lot of veggies and salads at home. At Choueifat 15 years ago, Dh10 bought a huge warm za'atar, meat or cheese sandwich trucked in from the Lebanese Flower Bakery, a box of juice, a bottle of water, a bar of chocolate, a couple of small savoury pastries, and an ice cream at the end of the day, with change to spare. Food was cheap here. It still is. Prices have remained, more or less, relatively low for prepared foods.

Which is why a dollar a day - or any amount, really - is relative. Yesterday, after reading a particularly depressing article about the environment, I found myself being ferried around on an assignment with a driver who, upon discovering that we are the same age, began razzing me for not having children.

I ended up explaining, when pressed, that I don't want any. It's a population growth thing, I tell him. Maybe I'll adopt someday. He laughs at me, shows me a photo in his wallet. "I have six! And I want 10 more!" I wanted to ask him just what sort of world he thinks his children will someday be living in if everyone felt they had the right to have six of them. Instead, I put on my headphones and made a mental note to start eating less meat.

In a world where there are a whole lot of people going hungry, cheap food may not seem like such a bad thing. But it helps to keep in mind that there are few true bargains in this world, and even fewer that can be bought. Hidden prices are embedded in everything. Meat and grains, cheaper to produce than fruit and vegetables, are far more taxing on our environment, our health, and the future of our planet. It kind of puts into perspective the notion that ordering a salad on a free meal plan is wasteful when you could be ordering a steak with a side of polenta for the same price.

Most people cannot conceive of philosophising about food the way we - the way I - do. That's part of the reason I believe that I don't have the luxury to do things any differently. We have an obligation to think deeply about our choices - even more so if you have children and want them to grow old on a planet that doesn't completely stink in multiple ways.