What do Aurovilians want to eat? What do they think of Auroville grown and produced food compared to food grown and produced outside Auroville? What are the overall community food requirements? How are these going to change in the future?
It was to try and answer some of these questions that the Auroville Food Survey was undertaken in January and February of this year. It was carried out as part of the Farm Assessment Research which was supported partly by the Government of India and partly by Stichting de Zaaier. The overall aim was to study the production and consumption of food in Auroville with the object of providing data from which plans could be made about the overall development of farms for the next five years.
A wide range of different sorts of information was obtained, both from individual Aurovilians and those involved with various kinds of food processing. The latter included those responsible for units making food items for sale, running restaurants/guest houses as well as those involved with community kitchens. Information from individual Aurovilians was obtained through a questionnaire which was distributed both on paper through various places in Auroville and by email. Some 7% of the adult population (101 individuals) replied. Most of the individuals involved with food processing (usually the coordinator of a unit, restaurant, guest house or community kitchen) were personally interviewed. Where possible statistical information was obtained about their purchase of food. Further detailed statistical information was obtained from the two food distributors – Pour Tous and HERS – in order to obtain data about the volume and expenditure on different types of food consumed in Auroville over the last year.
However, the statistical information obtained was not of sufficient detail to provide the hoped for information about the overall size and value of the Auroville food market. It was also inadequate for making future predictions concerning the volume of food that was likely to be needed. While most food processors have computerised accounts, only one or two had computerised stock control. Pour Tous does not have an integrated statistical information system and although some data was obtained and analysed, this provided only a very partial view of some items. The information obtained was therefore very piecemeal and showed the need for an integrated information system so that reliable overall plans can be made.
Be Aurovilian, buy Aurovilian
The most striking result from both individual Aurovilian consumers and those involved with food processing, is the very strong loyalty displayed towards using Aurovilian-grown and produced food. Despite the perceived high price and unreliability of supply, the organic and what are perceived as special ‘Aurovilian/spiritual' qualities of Auroville produced food are greatly valued. Statements such as ‘I prefer Auroville farmers to produce the food as it has a different energy to it somehow' explained why many consumers, both individuals and food processors, made a lot of effort to obtain and use this food, despite the difficulties they encountered by doing so. Several individuals thought that Auroville ‘should become completely self-sufficient in food'. However, while this is a laudable aim, this would imply a vast change in food habits. Many of the vegetables and fruits which Aurovilians like to eat cannot be grown in this area, or only at certain times of the year.
Although many respondents were aware of the individual benefits of eating organically-grown and produced food, the benefits to the environment as a whole were not always appreciated.
One of the problems with Auroville-grown and produced food is the high and inflexible prices. This was a particular problem for the restaurants, many of whom are under immense financial pressure to keep costs down so that they can provide affordable meals. On average, Auroville's produce was estimated as being 50% more costly than in Pondicherry . For the food-producing units, paying high prices implies a high cost rice of their products, which make them only available to the very rich and therefore beyond the reach of most local people and many Aurovilians.
While many individuals (particularly those eating in community kitchens) are willing to spend more money on what they perceive as good food grown and produced in Auroville, questions were asked as to whether these high prices are really necessary. Some think there is profiteering going on, especially in the case of processed food items. The high price of Auroville-grown and produced food was felt most intensely by those Aurovilians entirely dependent on a (generally acknowledged as too low) maintenance provided by the community. As part of this maintenance is made available on an account which can only be used in Auroville, these Aurovilians felt the added pressure of having to do most of their shopping in Pour Tous, where prices are generally higher than in the surrounding shops.
Restaurants complain about the unreliable supply from Auroville farmers and solve this by using first the more available non-Auroville grown food and supplementing it with Auroville-grown food as and when it becomes available. ‘Whenever farmers do come to offer their produce, I gladly take it because of the high quality and the feeling that I am supporting the Auroville community. However, the Auroville supply is unreliable, but once it is available I will gladly pay a little extra, and mention on the menu where the ingredients come from.'
Restaurants also observed their need for a ‘one stop shopping' where they can be assured of obtaining all their food needs in
Support for the farmers
There is awareness that Auroville does not have an economy that supports its farmers. While in many countries in the world farming is subsidized, in Auroville this is only done sporadically, mainly through the efforts of one of Auroville's commercial units and by obtaining outside funding, such as from the Dutch Stichting de Zaaier.
That Auroville produce is often too costly for the Aurovilians who depend on an Auroville maintenance hasn't escaped the general awareness. As one of the restaurant executives observed: ‘I think it's a crying shame that we have not been able to introduce a system by which the farms are encouraged to produce all the milk and that Aurovilians use it. When I see in the Auroville News that Aurovilians don't buy the Auroville milk because it's Rs2 more expensive than in the village then I think that's something absolutely wrong in the way we run our economy.”
It was also found that Auroville food could be promoted better in Pour Tous. It should be more clearly labelled as such and should have more information about the nature of the ingredients and where they come from.
In addition to the Auroville Food Survey, a Farm Assessment Process has been ongoing to review the entire Auroville farming. This survey was also supported by the Dutch Stichting de Zaaier, and its results are still being awaited. The outcome of this survey should ideally help farmers to know what needs to be done in order to produce sufficient food to meet as much of the demand for Auroville grown food as possible, reliably and at affordable prices.
Secondly, the marketing of Auroville food should be improved. This would include exploring how products could be better labelled and the standards with regard to how it was grown and produced clearly set out. Further information about the benefits of organic food, both for individuals and the environment, also needs to be made more widely available.
Thirdly, the Auroville statistical information needs to be greatly improved with a computerised integrated information system, especially for Pour Tous which is the main distributor of food in Auroville. This would enable more precise planning as well as making it easier to respond to market changes more quickly.
Fourthly, any discussions about the Auroville economy must include an appreciation of the needs of the farms and farmers and how they can best be supported to produce food for Auroville.
These and other suggestions will be discussed in the light of the results from this survey and from the Farm Assessment Research. With this information a practical plan of action can be created and implemented so that the original aim – of helping Auroville become more sustainable in its food production – can be achieved.