Op-Ed

Going to the source amid COVID-19

Since the arrival of COVID-19 on our Bahamian shores, the word on most of our mouths is food.

Once the lockdown was ordered, Bahamians and residents flocked to the food stores to stock up on essential items and some not-so-essentials like rolls of toilet paper. I am still trying to wrap my head around the panic to buy so much tee pee!

The lines at the stores at times were very lengthy and for the most part persons were well behaved, although at times tempers flared when things were not going right. Things have now simmered down a bit and with the sense of urgency subsiding, our trips to the store seem closer to our normal experience pre-COVID-19.

This pandemic is teaching us some very important lessons, which hopefully will not be tossed to the wayside once things return back to normal, if that is possible, or our “new normal”.

The most important lesson is our inability to feed ourselves. Being located so close to Florida has its drawbacks, where we have containers of food being shipped to our islands constantly and the food store shelves are always well stocked with fresh meats and vegetables. If you didn’t know any better you could be in a food store somewhere in the United States, but of course you are brought back to reality when you see the prices!

Perhaps if our islands were not so close and shipping was not as regular, we would be more prone to develop our own food industry, where we can farm and raise our own fresh poultry, pork, beef and fish. This in addition to creating more industry to can our fruits and vegetables would certainly serve us well in taking the first steps in becoming self-sufficient. How great it would be to see an abundance of local pepper sauce on food store shelves rather than the standard Tabasco or Matouks.

It is disheartening to watch Hunt’s tomato sauce and paste take up every inch of shelf space while local business with the same product struggle to make an appearance in our local grocery stores.

It is my sentiment that Bahamians really need to start supporting our local manufacturers, for example choosing to purchase our native Blanco Bleach rather than the likes of Clorox and their counterparts. We should really implore ourselves to consider why are we so inclined to support foreign brands instead of our local products.

The manufacturers of these local brands such as Blanco Bleach employ your fellow Bahamians, your neighbors, your friends and maybe even your family members. Supporting these local enterprises has a huge impact on the economy; the more sales they have is directly correlated to their ability to hire more Bahamians. Just ask yourself, what is it exactly that Hunt’s and Clorox does for the average Bahamian and our community at large?

In terms of local produce, the list is expansive and unlimited when we speak about variety and surplus of agriculture goods Bahamian farmers can produce, including our incredibly sweet onions and decadent papayas. When you need to do a cookout for a sick family member, who do you call on for support?

Local water companies face the same issues with foreign competition. I recall when I was involved in the water business we had agitated for a higher duty on the foreign water as it was killing us and it was difficult to get shelf space in the food stores. At the time we spoke with the late Paul Adderley about our plight and overnight they imposed a 100 percent duty on imported water. That was a relief for us and allowed the local water industry to take off exponentially.

Years later this was reversed as the new government loosely indicated that they didn’t see why the local water companies needed all of that protection. Subsequently the tariff was reduced to half of what is was.

It would be beneficial to all to speak with farmers or those who make a living from the land, using age old methods to grow vegetables and fruit in their small farms.

Talk to Mr. Turnquest, an ordinary man from Long Island. I use the word ordinary rather loosely, because there is nothing ordinary about men like Turnquest. In his farming endeavor there is no fancy irrigation to water his crops, but water drawn from his well and each plant is watered individually. I am sure like most farmers you can imagine the conversation that goes on between him and the budding fruits and vegetables.

When the time comes to harvest, Mr. Turnquest takes his bounty to the local packing house. He is paid a mere pittance for his back-breaking work, which in most cases it’s not worth his time and energy, not to mention transportation to the packing house, where he waits to get paid for his labor of love.

In Nassau we are paying almost $1.00 for a lime, which if you are lucky you might get some juice out of, while Mr. Turnquest is lucky to get $5.00 for a hundred of his limes. This seems rather unfair to see what he gets as compared to the foreign import.

Yes, I implore engagement in conversation with the likes of the Mr. Turnquests of The Bahamas to find out firsthand how we can feed ourselves. Perhaps he, like others may not be an academic archetype and he may be a bit angry at the system, but the wealth of knowledge has he acquired is irreplaceable. Many men like him from yesterday and today have raised a family from his small farm and continues to put food on his family table. What he can’t sell he then barters with his friends either for fresh fish or other essentials.

Yes. Mr. Turnquest is no ordinary man, he is an industrious and highly-skilled farmer who has stories to tell. Perhaps if we listen to what he has to say he may impart some much-needed knowledge and lessons on the value of hard work. He may even provide the start of the roadmap to self-sufficiency. As the old folks say, if we take the time to listen, you just might learn something. There are just some things they don’t teach you at Harvard or those fancy colleges.

• William Wong is a two-term president of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Confederation, two-term president of the Bahamas Real Estate Association and a partner at Darville-Wong Realty. E-mail: williamuwong@gmail.com.

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