Vegemite and cheese, and lunch box conundrums | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Food Safety, Food Security on Jan 29, 2019

Lovers and haters

Starting with an explanation for those not from the antipodes – vegemite is a thick, black, food spread that is made with a mixture of brewer’s yeast, vegetable extracts and spices. It originated in Australia and is common in both Australia and NZ (and is one of those things that is often sought by travellers from those countries when seeking a taste of home). It is similar to the British (or NZ) marmite. A lot like blue cheese, anchovies, cilantro and marzipan, there are those who love it and those who do not, and it is hard to convert a non-eater.

Ripples of fear went through the vegemite loving community when, in 2012 and on the back of the international marmite shortage, there was a temporary shortage of vegemite in NZ supermarkets. There were even reports of people ‘stockpiling’ it. The fans really love the stuff.

Vegemite +

This post is not just about the humble vegemite however, it is also about how it is combined. During my time at school, vegemite was combined with cheese, lettuce or potato crisps (the combination largely depended upon socioeconomic status). Every day (apart from birthdays) my school lunch box contained pieces of bread wrapped around the vegemite and cheese combo. As I got older, and my mother more adventurous with bread making, the flavour profile started to change, but the fillings remained the same. Day after day, vegemite and cheese was my staple mid-day meal.

A recent conversation with a colleague (of the same vintage) revealed that he had vegemite and lettuce as well, and yet another colleague (also of the same era) vegemite and crisps (it was determined that he came from a more affluent family). The remarkable thing is, despite the ubiquitous vegemite as a sandwich filling (and a packed lunch, everyday) we all turned out ok (in our own, modest opinions). Furthermore, we all appreciate food and have an interest in food systems and, we all still eat vegemite.

Parental insecurity drives sales

Fast forward to today, and there are blogs and self-help videos teaching you how to parent – including such things as Facebook pages for lunch inspiration, Instagram posts of photos of the inside of lunch boxes, meal plans and tutorials on how to make vegetables fun. The list is endless and it would seem that creating parental guilt about food is a great way to drive people to buy your product or subscribe to your feed.

The empty lunch box

Of course, while some are segmenting their oranges and cutting off crusts, a large cohort of children are attending schools with an actual empty lunchbox and it seems almost unfathomable to consider how best to cut sandwiches when many have none at all. In NZ, it is estimated that around 55,000 children go to school without lunch one or more times each week in New Zealand. In Australia, a campaign called “Eat Up” distributes vegemite and cheese sandwiches to children in Victoria; and FoodBank Australia reports that most teachers (82%) report an increase in workload when they have hungry children in the classroom. Why? Because hungry children have difficulty concentrating, can be lethargic, and can have learning difficulties – that organisation estimate that children who come to school hungry lose around 2 hours education a day. That’s equivalent to losing a term of schooling over the course of the year.

There are charities that work with schools to provide food for breakfasts and lunches such as Eat My Lunch in New Zealand. That organisation sells lunches and for every lunch that is purchased, a free lunch is provided to a school child. From their website they report that over 1 million lunches have been provided to children. That’s impressive. In Upper Hutt, a local charity run entirely on volunteers called Fuel the Need, delivers morning tea and lunches to students identified as in need, across the 12 primary and intermediate schools in the region. Fuel the Need hit headlines when NZ singer Lorde donated $20,000 to the charity in 2016, largely funding the cause.

Celebrity, pink slime and driving a healthy agenda

Like vegemite and cheese, the association of Jamie Oliver with school lunches is a natural one. The celebrity chef has been vocal in his drive to make school lunches in the UK and US more appealing and healthier. His website also contains ‘helpful hints’ for producing really ‘fresh and fast’ lunches for children (including such things as mango and nectarine rice paper wraps). Oliver’s work with transforming school meals started in 2005 when his reporting of school food highlighted fried, unhealthy meals (that cost all of 37pence) being served up to children. The transformation of the system did not go smoothly, but, never-the-less that documentary and the resulting social action that ensued did see positive changes to school food. In the US, Oliver’s work saw the now famous expose of ‘pink slime’ being served to school children.

Pink slime is a meat by-product that is added to ground beef and other beef-based processed meats; it is used either as a filler, or to reduce the overall fat content of the beef product. The production process includes the removal of fat from beef trimmings by processing; the resultant paste is then exposed to ammonia gas or citric acid to kill bacteria (such as E.coli and Salmonella).

It was estimated that around 70% of ground beef sold in US supermarkets contained the additive in March 2012, but by March 2013 after a documentary by a US television channel (and nearly 2 years after the Oliver show) the amount of the additive was estimated to have dropped to around 5%. It should be noted that other, more socially acceptable names for pink slime, include lean finely textured beef (LFTB), finely textured beef (FTB), or boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT). If the product has been processed using ammonia gas, it is banned for human consumption in the EU.

School lunches are political

The work of Oliver and others in driving awareness around the quality of school food, along with the work of social organisations building programmes to make food accessible to all children is an apt metaphor for the food system. There is considerable room for improvement in the quality and information about food available, but the fact that many are attending school in a state that makes learning more difficult, that is, they are hungry, is an equally pressing concern. I am grateful that my lunch box was always full, and while there were no strawberry, kiwi and spinach rice wraps with yoghurt and honey dipping sauce, there was healthy food, a full tummy and (at times) an engaged mind in the classroom.

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