Make Aotearoa Mutton Again

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    I ate a lot of Milo sandwiches as a child. My mother was convinced, by a television ad featuring energetic girls playing basketball, that Milo was some kind of superfood, so she sprinkled it liberally over buttered bread to make my school sandwiches. The Milo melted into the butter to create a divinely gooey mix – chocolate ganache sandwiches could not have tasted better. 

    At least she was being creative. Everyday Kiwi food of the era, despite the efforts of Tui Flower (a frugal version of Julia Child), was nothing to write home about. In 2022, when Radio NZ put out a cookbook from their vast archive of recipes, the authors named-checked ‘Aunt Daisy’, the legendary domestic expert who broadcast right up until she died in 1963, fueled by forgotten substances like hogget, mutton, and liver pies. Fascinatingly, RNZ couldn’t bring themselves to include even one of her recipes in their celebration of New Zealand food, opting for stuff you might actually want to eat instead: Josh Emett’s prawn okonomiyaki, Connie Clarkson’s miso eggplant, Hasan Alwarhani’s Syrian hummus, Julie Le Clerc’s Persian lamb with rhubarb.

    Eventually, (thank you migrants from
    anywhere but England), New Zealand learned that garlic wasn’t ‘foreign muck’, and fish could safely be eaten without batter. Māori had always known how to cook fish, but Pākehā, as The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand puts it delicately, “have only come around to celebrating [fish] relatively recently.”

    The encyclopedia includes an anecdote which captures this perfectly. In the 1980s, Topo Gigio restaurant in Auckland began to sell broad squid grilled whole, rather than cut into rings and deep-fried. A diner sent it back to the kitchen, saying it wasn’t what she ordered. When told that it was in fact squid, cooked whole, she said she thought squid were circular animals, “small rings that drifted around the sea.”

    It has been years since I have seen the upper story of a white bread sandwich curl in a display cabinet or heard the phrase ‘greasy spoon’ – Dad-speak for ‘café’. Today, ideally, children have access to a wide variety of food unknown to earlier generations. 

    In announcing his incomprehensibly callous cuts to the Healthy School Lunches Programme (Ka Ora, Ka Ako) which provides lunches to schools, David Seymour – a Dick Dastardly for the ages – provided rich material for comic writers by announcing that children would no longer be provided with ‘woke’ school lunches. 

    The Spinoff snapped into action, pulling together a magnificently sarcastic List of woke and non-woke foods.

    Lentils, they decreed, are woke. “Lettuce (iceberg) = not woke; Lettuce (fancy, mesclun, cos) = woke; luncheon sausage = not woke; meat = not woke; meat wrapped in meat = even more not woke.”

    The comments were also hilarious.

    “I’m fascinated,” wrote one reader, “that mere time might turn some foods from “not woke” to “woke”. For example, cabbage = not woke, but leave it for a while and suddenly it’s sauerkraut = woke. Does this mean woke is transmitted by germs?”

    Seymour felt forced to dial back his opposition to a scheme to feed hungry children, and now says it will be extended to pre-school children – even while losing a chunk of its former budget.

    As public health experts have pointed out, most hungry children attend schools not eligible for Ka Ora, Ka Ako. In other words, the programme and its budget needs to be expanded urgently, not cut. 

    Child hunger in Aotearoa is increasing, and guess what, hungry children find it hard to learn. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently revealed that children suffering food poverty lag up to four years behind their food-secure friends, even accounting for social deprivation.

    In 2022/23, New Zealand saw the biggest increase in food insecurity for children in a decade. In communities facing greater socio-economic barriers, the Ministry of Education says a staggering 40 percent of parents run out of food “sometimes or often.”

    “Despite these rates of food insecurity in families, there is still a tendency by those who haven’t experienced food insecurity to attribute hunger to individual decision making,” says psychologist Dr Rebekah Graham. Her piece in The Conversation has the pointed headline: “If only they made better life choices’ – how simplistic explanations of poverty and food insecurity miss the mark.”

    Waiheke islander Dr Kelly Garton is part of a group monitoring the Healthy School Lunches Programme. Her team describes international evidence suggesting “a ripple effect of benefits [from school lunches] increasing over time at a widening scale.”

    “Hungry kids are getting what may be their only healthy or hot meal of the day, and their families are getting some financial relief in this cost-of-living crisis,” Garton told Gulf News. Teachers report calmer classrooms, and no longer having to feed children from their own pocket.

    While I fondly remember my mother’s Milo sandwiches, I also remember coming home to a warm house, a full fridge, and parents who didn’t have to worry about how to pay the electricity bill. One in five Kiwi children are not so lucky. • Jenny Nicholls

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