After having dinner at 8:30 pm as usual here in rural Kanpur, it was time to relax. A not so pleasant surprise was awaiting me. Little did I know that things were not going to go as planned. I wasn’t ready for a heap of work coming my way. Now when I look back, the hard labor that went straight for 25 hours actually brought awareness in me about the food we eat in a way I could have never imagined as a consumer. We, as city dwellers, often take for granted the food packets that come to us in a ready to use form. We don’t even give a second to think about the path these packets and their contents must have taken to reach us.
On a rare occasion, when we find a small bit of flaw, we immediately reject the packet as defective and religiously put a complaint. No doubt, it is our right as consumers. But what if I tell you that our ready to use food packets which appear healthy might not be so. Even when we don’t see the small stones or insects as negative markers, there are chemicals and pesticides. Are pesticides meant only to destroy the insects and ensure the safety of our health? We often talk about the deteriorating state of farmers and agriculture, but do we talk enough about the quality of our food?
Going back to the 25 hours that brought a never-ending rush of questions in my head, after dinner, I had sat for 5 minutes when I got a call from one of our FPO (Farmer Producer Company) directors. She asked me to visit her home. When I reached, three other women were sitting in a circle with her. I thought we have assembled to gossip but what I heard was enough to sweep away the thought of relaxation from my mind. We were supposed to sieve 300 kg of wheat flour within 12 hours.
I didn’t have an idea of the time it would take, but looking at the mound of wheat flour in front of me, it was definitely going to be more than 12 hours. It meant no sleep. We gathered all the courage and started working. Secretly, I was wishing that we could take turns to sleep. But, we were able to sieve half the quantity by 1 am and took rest for a while. The work resumed at 5 am and by 9 in the morning, it was completed. Doing what seemed impossible gave a sense of achievement and contentment to me.
The next task for the day was to sit in a battery powered rickshaw, with the sacks that were to be delivered at our company office, 10 km from where I was staying. When I reached the office, I figured that there was a never-ending line of work to do. About 20 different items including pulses, cereals and spices were to be packed. Three months ago, I could have counted myself as someone who doesn’t even know the exact names of pulses and can’t distinguish one from another. Today, we started with Moong Dal.
Before packing, we needed to make sure if the dal in sacks was cleaned in the village already. It looked fine to me but Armaan Ji, the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of our FPO remarked how dirty it looked. I wasn’t happy about my lack of knowledge and awareness about these things. Soon, the team started separating full round pulses and the broken small pieces. It took us 5 hours to make moong dal packets and I was already tired. But we had to do it for other items. The tasks were repeated – cleaning, weighing, packing and branding. By 10 pm, a lot of it was done but the amount of work left, easily demanded 5-6 more hours.
Finally, our packets were ready with labeling. They sat shining at a stall in IIT Kanpur. Considering the efforts we made, I was proud of the team and positive about these products being sold. But even when the flawless appearance didn’t convert into huge sales, it was disappointing. A few customers passed by our stall without even taking a proper look. They were comparing us with the famous brands, unable to place us upon their buying list. Before we try to improve our packaging and branding, we will need to educate our customers. The ignorance about where their food comes from is an invitation to an unhealthy life like it was for me, and we need to change that.
About the Author: Aarti Narayan is an India fellow, working with Shramik Bharti in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. She is working with Self Help Groups on women empowerment through capacity building and overall strengthening programs.