Fat profits for mother’s little helper

The Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project often forces us to rethink our assumptions and biases of class, race and place, typically about that most personal and most political of matters – how people eat. My own biases caught me out recently while writing up the third year’s results on changing food habits.

Ingredients for a meal cooked by Ibu R, 42, occasional chef and masseuse, Bekasi, near Jakarta

"Tut tut," I caught myself thinking, as yet another Burkinabe mother revealed that her best stew depends on the ubiquitous Maggi® stock cube, in one of several specially developed West African flavours. "So lazy", I thought of Ibu R in Java, Indonesia, who regularly serves up the world famous Indomie® Mi Goreng fried noodles because they are quick and easy to prepare. "How can they let them?" I wondered of the Cochabamba parents whose children are apparently devoted to burgers and Coke® (so much so that the Bolivian government tried – but failed – to ban it).

Having mentally ticked off parents around the world, I returned my attention to stirring my 10-minute specialty - fish ball soup, a pan-Asian concoction of dashi (for that umami/monosodium glutamate flavour); processed frozen bakso - globules of something fishy; instant udon noodles ("organically made" in Australia) and pak choi of unknown pesticide use, fresh off the local street vendor's cart.

Not the most nutritious of meals you might be thinking. But hey, I'm a working mother too, and some days you only have ten minutes to cook.

Two sources of pressure on feeding families are fundamentally facts of economics (not education, tastes or morality)

So I sympathise with the mothers of Nessemtenga, An Giang, Khulna and Bekasi when they struggle and worry about feeding the family. I don't have to negotiate a tight food budget, but I fully empathise when it comes to the challenge of figuring out how to feed a family that is...

  1. ...always hungry
  2. ...exposed to powerful food signals from TV, markets (super or otherwise) and the snack-boxes of schoolmates
  3. ...used to novelty, variety and the pleasing tastes of highly processed fat-sugar-salt-bombs. I mean, even The Guardian’s finest food critic loves a hit of junk food.

Unsurprisingly, I'm not the only one tutting over women's use of flavourings and fatty foods.

We've found that a lot of men seemed to resent the fact that women are more and more inclined to buy outside foods to save time and effort. As always, women are expected to cook cheap, tasty, culturally appropriate, nutritious and creative foods, and when they don't, they get shamed for it and get called "lazy".

The pressures shaping how women on low incomes in developing countries feed their families sound increasingly like those of their sisters in the industrialised world.

It has been known for over a decade that the nutrition transition means more of the world's population is "stuffed and starved" in Raj Patel's unforgettable précis of the adverse effects of the contemporary world food system.

It sounds obvious, but it is worth remembering that what people eat depends mainly on what is available to them – they don't call it an epidemic of obesity because en masse the world suddenly chose to get fat.

Our research suggests the two sources of pressure on feeding families are both fundamentally facts of economics - not of education or knowledge or tastes or morality.

People need convenience foods because they work longer hours often far from home

“Sometimes”, said one family in Dhaka, Bangladesh, “there is nobody at home all day, so no question of cooking” They just grab whatever from the street stall on the way home. Women’s time has been squeezed with many doing more paid work than in the past.

Women have been economically empowered through paid work and been liberated from the kitchen accordingly. But if Mum is not cooking, you can be pretty sure nobody else is either. If she is cooking, she needs to be quick and interesting about it.

Faced with washing, peeling, chopping, pounding, grating onions, galangal, chillies, peppers, nuts, herbs (etc.) the Maggi cube is a godsend. Let's also not forget that women started using Maggi cubes first and foremost when they could no longer afford the meat that would deliver that flavour. So it’s a cube that does the job. And they taste good.

In Burkina Faso, women stallholders say they think the cubes are a health risk (Nestlé would disagree) but there’s no point making a stew without them: customers are used to the taste - they won't like it and you'll lose business.

Market stall in Nessemtenga, Burkina Faso. Credit: N.Hossain - IDS

We are all consumers now: convenience foods are readily available (and heavily marketed)

Not only do people do more paid work than in the past, foods of convenience – fast, cooked, instant, tinned, packaged, semi-prepared – are also more available.

In Western Oromia in Ethiopia and Khulna in southern Bangladesh, eating out has become a thing in the past couple of years. Cafes and restaurants and stalls have opened to serve working people with cash in their pockets. Ethiopian women mutter darkly about the women serving their husbands coffee, but these places are popular and handy. In Cianjur, in West Java in Indonesia, an Indomaret (convenience store chain) opened two years ago – people now feel proud if they buy food in the mini super-market (one of 9,000 across the archipelago). This is what development looks like.

Eating out, takeaways and seasonings are not only handy, they are often the all-round best value option. We are all consumers now.

There is always room for manoeuvre, and some families manage to eat well despite the pressures on women’s work and the appeal of new foods. Economic woman is above all a value-maximiser. But ‘value’ varies – when you’re on a tight budget and a world of food is available out there, it includes moral decisions about how to feed the family that are hard to predict or unpack (as shown by Gina Harris’ fascinating recent PhD thesis about the shopping habits of Australian mothers).

Given that the food industry has a vested interested in providing mother with her little helpers, benefiting from overweight children needing more calories to the tune of US$20 billion according to a recent Lancet study, it is unlikely to be the big corporations that are going to help people feed their families well.

As Adam Smith wrote in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest."

Mother’s little helper is earning a fat profit.


Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility is a four-year research project monitoring the impacts of, and responses to, volatile food prices in 10 countries, funded by UKaid and Irish Aid.

Date published: 
21/05/2015