Before the pandemic, prices on the twin isle were constantly increasing. Imagine post pandemic and being able to afford only the basics to maintain your family’s survival. This is the dilemma for many citizens who make the bare minimum wage of $17.50 per hour. With the rising cost in food prices and prices on items needed to get by daily, people have been finding it difficult to get through.
Despite the value-added tax (VAT) being removed on most items like vegetable/soya bean, coconut and canola oil, cheese slices; table butter; pigtail; bologna, ham and turkey slices chicken lunch meats; and biscuits and crackers working for the minimum wage only afforded the basic food necessities, payment of bills (in some cases rent) and other items that were critical to maintain proper hygiene.
For the average person/household, basic food items were exempt from value added tax (VAT), also the continuation of rebates for water and electricity to offset the cost of increases in the price of motor fuels. But, this is not enough for citizens to survive in an economy rich with oil dollars.
Food costs are an important indicator of the balance between agricultural production and market demand; they directly influence affordability for the consumer and income for the farmers and producers. In Trinidad and Tobago, we should be producing more domestic products because we have the means and land to do it. All these issues return to the fundamental concept that food equals survival and survival takes work.
It is instructive to consider not just overall food affordability, but also how much of our income we spend on food. Many of us may not think about the larger comparisons. We know the cost difference between eating out at a fine restaurant and cooking rice at home. We see how that affects our individual income but what about our income as an entire society?
For example, people in the United States spend, on average, 6.4 per cent of its income on food, and people in the United Kingdom spend approximately 10 per cent of their income on food. Compared to Trinidad and Tobago, where people spend almost twice the amount of their income on food. Food is not more expensive in Trinidad and Tobago than in the US. In fact, it is basically the opposite, and more people are employed in the agriculture industry. More people work and live closer to the production of the food they consume. In many developing or low-to-middle income countries, the food markets have a large impact on food affordability, hunger and undernourishment, and dietary quality. What we spend on food, we spend on survival and survival is not easy work, and it is especially hard in certain places.
The power dynamics at play—many times our governing bodies perpetuate the continued imperialism, colonialism, and racial and gender inequities, along with the unequal distribution of wealth within and across the country. This often contributes to this broad variation in how much is spent on food and how much energy is expended on survival.
The truth is that food production systems in Trinidad and Tobago are underdeveloped, food supply chains are broken, conflict with political instability exacerbate poverty, and climate change affects us more sharply than others and unless people have the means to either grow their own food or be able to afford to buy it, people will continue going hungry. On the other hand, providing appropriate policies and infrastructure, higher agricultural prices can also raise farmers’ incomes and rural wages, improve rural economies and stimulate investment for longer-term economic growth.
In addition, transparency in supply chains, along with a deeper understanding of unequal power dynamics, is a good starting point for breaking down these systems and structures that function so poorly for so many people on our country. We need food to survive, but we also need each other. By understanding who and how work is done towards survival, we may just start treating each other and our planet better.
The Government can afford to give the people of Trinidad and Tobago a merry Christmas by at least removing the VAT on all food items.
Subrina Hall-Azih is a Trinidadian Educator residing in New York.