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Raffique Shah


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Man must eat—but so much junk?

By Raffique Shah
September 05, 2016

Even as most people cry out loudly about the state of the national economy, relating sad stories about the hard times they face, the high prices of almost everything and the unavailability of some things, especially critical medications, a Starbucks coffee house opened its doors for business last week.

According to news reports, scores of customers queued on the pavement outside the business, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to buy their first "cuppa" from the famous American-owned international chain. Prices range from $42 down.

Now, I am no spoil-sport to even think of criticising those who believe the Starbucks brand is worth every dollar-per-drop of its brews, nor do I arrogate unto myself the authority to advise people how they should spend their money.

I am a one-cup-on-mornings man who swore by Hong Wing local ground coffee until some years ago when I found its flavour had declined, only to discover that the company that once cast an appetising aroma in downtown Port of Spain when it roasted and blended beans, was using Brazilian feedstock. By then I figured out there were little or no differences in flavour among the many ordinary brands, and ever since I have been drinking whatever is available.

So I am no coffee connoisseur. I should add that I had one cup of Starbucks coffee some years ago at the urging of a friend when I visited London, and, frankly, I don't recall being impressed.

But my tastes and habits are immaterial to the points I wish to make.

That Prestige Holdings, the biggest franchise restaurants company in the country—think KFC, Pizza Hut, TGIF and Subway—thought it opportune to add Starbucks to its stable at this time, speaks volumes about its knowledge of the market, its understanding of how Trinis spend their money.

Prestige, a publicly-traded company run by some of the finest business minds in the country, has experienced growth in sales from around $600 million in 2010, to above $900 million in 2014. Now, with Starbucks, the company is no doubt aiming at the billion-dollar mark.

It knows that the truism "man must eat" has taken new meaning in T&T: man will eat junk food, whatever the cost. Put graphically, if Trini has $40 in his pocket, he will spend $35 on a fry-and-fries, a burger, slices of pizza, six doubles or a roti, and hope he can short-change a maxi or "ph" car to take him home as he rubs his belly and burps…or worse.

Assuming the Prestige Group has 25 per cent of the fast-foods market, and the others, which include other franchise restaurants, thriving local establishments, roti, pies and bake-and-shark and similar shops, as well as hundreds of doubles and delicacies vendors, then Trinis must spend approximately $4 billion a year on junk foods.

Since I have not included what is prepared at home, which I imagine is in decline but still considerable, that's a huge amount of food for 1.3 million people. And it's not just a question of quantitatively how much we eat, but qualitatively what we eat. Increasingly, as we became more prosperous on a relative scale, we have moved away from eating wholesome, nutritious foods, to processed junk.

I know lifestyles have changed over the years: with most adults in households holding down jobs, there are hardly mothers (or fathers) at home to cook. However, even in such situations, with proper planning, several meals can be prepared, refrigerated and used later for lunch or dinner.

But it's so much easier, if not cheaper, to buy and eat junk, conscious, though, of the fact that you and your children are likely eating your way to diabetes, hypertension, even cancer. In so many ways, we help create our own woes.

The franchise holders use foreign exchange to import foods that may not be healthy. They also pay royalties and other fees, in US dollars, to the metropolitan brand owners. We consume the foods and contract serious illnesses that put further strain on the nation's health system. More foreign exchange is required to import medications to treat diseases we all but bought.

It's a vicious circle that gets bigger and costlier every year.

I'm not casting blame on Starbucks or the jefes at Prestige Holdings or even the doubles and bake-and-shark vendors. They are not forcing us to buy their products. They employ thousands of locals and pay taxes—$21 million in corporation tax in 2014 in the case of Prestige.

Ultimately, though, they use considerable amounts of foreign exchange but earn none.

And we consumers aid and abet them in this nonsense by elevating franchise fast-foods, and now beverages, to iconic images of progress and social status symbols: my chile have KFC for lunch; or, meet me at Starbucks for coffee.

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