Food mile refers to the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer. Higher food mile not only means a longer distance it takes for food to be delivered to the hands of consumers but also implies higher consumption of fuels and greater difficulty in maintaining the freshness of food.
“Doesn’t this indicate that opting for food with higher food mile is unfriendly to the environment?” the local youths who usually get their necessities from supermarkets suddenly realized.
All the daily supplies could be conveniently obtained by making a trip down to the supermarket. Accustomed to the convenience of urban lifestyle, most vegetables and fruits are pre-packed in plastic bags, looking fresh and colourful with uniform shape and sizes. In fact, food that reaches our hands has already undergone numerous pre-sale processes. So, how can we recover the original looks of our food?
Starting from year 2011 till now, the Singapore Tzu Chi Collegiate Youths have been actively promoting vegetarianism through their Veggie Hero (VERO) campaign. On 21 July 2012, a ‘Running VERO: Market Exploration’ mission was organized with 41 participants navigating the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre in search of food ingredients and dry goods. By completing each and every game station, participants have the chance to see, hear and understand where these staples come from and learn to appreciate food.
Singapore is an island country and almost all of its food is imported from other countries. Many staples like rice, dry goods, vegetables and fruits are imported from neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia while some travelled a long distance across the sea or sky from Australia and USA to reach us.
“Transportation by sea usually takes about two weeks. Unavoidably, the outer surface of some vegetables and fruits may have injuries and therefore the first round of examination and selection is necessary upon receipt of goods,” a vegetable wholesaler commented calmly.
So, how long does it usually take to trade off the vegetables?
“Some leafy green vegetables need to be distributed within two days while longer lasting ones like cauliflower have a week to trade off,” replied the wholesaler.
To ensure that vegetables could be trade off in good condition, the wholesale centre has a large vegetable trimming and transportation flow-line and the most apparent vegetable found there is the mustard green. After trimming the leafy part of the arm-length vegetable leaving the fair and verdant stem part, the trimmed mustard green’s trade price is double or even triple that of the untrimmed ones. In order to gain a higher profit, traders would have to trim and discard off the leafy part of the vegetable.
A participant asked the vendor curiously, “The trimmed mustard green only weighs half of the original plant, have you ever thought of how to recycle the leafy portions that is meant to be discarded?”
“There are tons of unwanted leafy portions to be discarded each day but who is willing to come every day to collect and recycle these unwanted portions, turning them into fertilizer and re-trade them?” said a trader helplessly.
Walking down the wet and dimly lit alley lined with baskets of unwanted leaf portions, experiencing how vegetables are trimmed and beautified, polytechnic student Goh Jia Feng exclaimed, “The leaves look fine, maybe some have a bit of wormholes, some plainly look duller, but they are all being thrown away. This is too wasteful!” Feeling remorseful, she decided to appreciate every single dish in her meals from then on.
After being transported from the place of origin to the wholesale centre, not all vegetables could be distributed immediately, thus traders have to keep the food in chillers to preserve their freshness. “The monthly electricity bill for the chillers usually cost up to S$4000 to S$5000.” Such astonishing amount of electrical usage is way beyond that of any normal household.
Next, the participants came to the dry goods section of the wholesale centre and were given a scenario: “Xiao Hui’s mother has fallen ill. To help her mother gain full recovery, she went to the nearby market to gather some cooking ingredients. Now, which food has high contents of minerals, collagens, and is often seen as a more affordable alternative to bird’s nest?”
The station master allowed the participants to solve the answer by surveying the dry goods section. Moments later, a participant called out excitedly, “Found it. It’s the white fungus!” Through questions and answers, participants learnt that dry goods also contain high nutrients. Therefore, one does not need to opt for meat or choose any ingredients that can potentially harm the animals while one is making food selection.
After accomplishing all the game stations, the 41 participants gathered under a pavilion near the seaside West Coast Park, sharing their views on the food mile that they have just learnt. “As freshness is a great concern to most consumers, the food will be thrown away if they are not sold within days.” Participant Guo Sheng commented that we should only take the portion we can finish to prevent further food wastage, for all crops are planted with the farmers’ blood, sweat and tears. “We should remind ourselves of the farmers’ hardship when we have our meals so that we will not waste food simply,” echoed Yong Mun Ying who was participating in the VERO activity for the very first time.
After one whole morning of exploration in the wholesale centre, the ‘Running VERO’ participants have learnt that our food had travelled long distances, undergone multiple processes which consume a lot of energy to reach us. Therefore, we should be grateful and cherish our food.