February 16, 2012
For the hungry cyclist fresh off of four days in the backcountry eating wheat flour dumplings, coffee and trout, nothing may be so gratifying for one’s most immediate cravings as filling a supermarket cart from vast selections of bulk nuts and fruits, aisles of fresh produce and shelves stacked to the ceiling with wine and beer.
If, that is, he doesn’t first come across a roadside honesty box, perhaps New Zealand’s quaintest local food experience. Many tourists in automobiles surely pass right by them unaware—but cyclists see these handmade, unguarded food stalls in the distance, usually first as a cardboard sign advertising some product of the homestead. Many times it’s just pine cones, sacks of sheep stool or firewood—and sometimes the sign is just a notice that a reputed local bull is ready and eager to mate. But other times these signs tell passersby of apricots for sale at $3 for a kilogram bag, or walnuts at $2 for a heaping sack, or garden fresh eggs $4 for a dozen. Some stalls—generally about the size and appearance of a doghouse—hold avocados, peaches or rhubarb, and the excitement as one approaches from the distance is in anticipating just what you’re going to get. One day two weeks ago, as I rode from Akaroa west across the flat and swampy farmland by Lake Ellesmere, just a bit south of Christchurch, I was starved and out of gas in a region conspicuously void of grocery stores.
Then, in the distance, an honesty box appeared.
“Please not manure! Please not manure!” I begged in prayer.
It was walnuts, a buck a sack—and so, for a scraping of change, I was saved by New Zealand’s homiest food tradition.
The honesty box is like an artifice from a fable, an instrument of innocence, temptation and redemption, and the opportunity to do good. And though they represent neighborhood, trust and quality, these unguarded treasure chests are robbed at times by scoundrels too cheap to drop a few dollars on fantastic, organic, homegrown bargains. Many gardeners in the honesty box business have even abandoned the trade because of thieves. Others plainly have grown wary, posting signs in their stalls, beside their produce: “Smile for the camera!” or “We can see you,” or “If you steal this lettuce, we’ll turn your license plate number over to the police.” Certainly, these warnings add a bitter bite of modern reality to the otherwise cheery experience.
But in the quiet Catlins, according to a home gardener I met named Pania, stealing produce and small change from tin cans is rare. Pania said that she has lost $5 sacks of potatoes on occasion but that overall her honesty box is a winning endeavor. By keeping it stocked with potatoes, carrots, peas and currants, Pania pulls in some $5,000 a year. She even keeps a pile herbs in the stall beside a note saying, “FREE.”
Petty theft, though, may be the least of the threats to the honesty box, for a proposal, first introduced to Parliament in 2010 and still being drafted, aims to boost safety of food by tightening restrictions and regulations on growing it. Many people have voiced concerns that the measure could banish the age-old liberty of growing herbs or tending to a garden—and selling such homegrown goods via roadside honesty boxes. Titled Food Bill 160-2, the legislation seems to assume that health hazards are at play in current food production means in New Zealand, which may be true in some operations. But the bill may overreach its intentions, some worry. According to this blog post in The Healthy Home Economist, the Food Bill could go as far as empowering local police officers, as well as Monsanto employees, to double as “food safety officers,” who may inspect suspect locations—sometimes without a warrant.
But just how real the risk is that gardening rights could vanish may be unclear. Government officials have recently assured that the bill is only intended to regulate commercial operations.
Like honesty boxes? We’ll see.
Anyway, the gardeners and small-scale farmers I’ve recently chatted with are hardly concerned about the Food Bill. Some hadn’t even heard of it and shrugged when I asked, seemingly concerned with little beyond the day’s weed-picking chores or just which of their hens were waning in productivity and needed to be culled from the flock.
I, for one, just hope I don’t need to rely entirely on New World and Four Square supermarkets for my food needs the next time I travel in New Zealand—and as a cyclist on the move carrying 25 pounds of luggage, my next meal is always on my mind.
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