Building the Local Food Economy through Conscious Sourcing and Deliciousness

Garima Pareek works on sourcing ingredients for The Bombay Canteen. She has previous experience as a filmmaker, producer and is currently pursuing her masters in social work with a focus on public health at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Garima, tell us about your exciting role at The Bombay Canteen (TBC)?

I work for both The Bombay Canteen (TBC) and O Pedro primarily as a Sourcing Consultant. TBC’s philosophy is to celebrate regional Indian cuisines and local seasonal indigenous ingredients. At TBC we have feasts and season-based festivals where we collaborate with chefs from different parts of the country.

The focus is to source ingredients directly from producers, smaller middlemen or from organizations like Taru Naturals, run by Ruchi Jain who has a network of 3000 small scale farmers across India. Just look at our menus! They have a diverse set of ingredients.

I often get asked, “We need this, can you get it for us please”.

Whether it’s research online or talking to people, reading about things and exploring– my work is to figure out if and how we can get it to Bombay.

Chef Thomas also does the #ChefontheRoad trips. From each trip,  he comes back with a list of ingredients he would like for dishes to be put on the menu. For example last year Chef Thomas went to Kashmir, Indore, Kolhapur and to the north-east.  

My job is to find a reliable & consistent source for these ingredients and the best way to create a supply chain to bring these ingredients to our restaurants in Mumbai, to give chefs an opportunity to experiment with these ingredients.

Do some of your farmers and small producers end up being regular suppliers? How robust is the supply chain you create?

It depends on the menu; most dishes are on the menu for two or three months as long as the season for those ingredients last. But there are some producers we buy from regularly, like an organic farmer cooperative in Maharashtra that we buy our spices from and the mushroom producer in Lonavala who grows fresh oyster mushrooms.  We also help small producers expand their markets.

For example, we source local cheese like Bandel and Kalimpong from an old store in Kolkata’s New Market that has a deep-rooted history. Unfortunately, in supermarkets, we get Italian and Swiss Cheese more easily rather than these Indian varieties. While the Kolkata store owner was initially sceptical about shipping the cheese to Mumbai due to their perishable nature, once I helped in connecting them to the right courier service provider, they have been supplying us the cheese regularly now.

Do small suppliers talk to you about what their problems might be?

The perishable items have no way to make it into major markets and even if they do it is very expensive.

Yes, I connect with all these producers and suppliers on a regular basis. The biggest problem, they face is the lack of a reliable and affordable supply chain.

Many local, indigenous ingredients are available at an affordable price but their transportation cost is more than twice of their actual cost. 

The perishable items have no way to make it into major markets and even if they do it is very expensive. Many local, indigenous ingredients are available at an affordable price but their transportation cost is more than twice of their actual cost. 

For example, a few rice & potato varieties from the north-east are available for Rs 40-60 per kg, but transportation cost hikes their price up to Rs. 150 per kg.

The challenge is how can we make the supply chain more cost-effective and in turn benefit these small producers and not just the transportation companies.

Due to the lack of cold storage supply chains and a lot of fresh produce goes waste before it reaches to the end consumers.

We currently use a train parcel service to get fresh produce faster to Mumbai from different parts of India.

Can you tell us a little about your thesis for TISS and how it is related to the work you are doing now?

My thesis will be based on public health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has an instrument to measure the quality of life. I’m trying to use that instrument as my guide to understand the quality of life of female migrant labour.

I’m looking into how a lack of sanitation and nutrition, poor living conditions, lack of financial stability can influence the quality of life. Their mental and physical wellbeing, both are influenced by these factors.

How do think these current food experiences will shape your work after TISS?

Studying at TISS has given me a different perspective and understanding of everything. It would be interesting to see how my training as a public health social worker would help me in my work as a farmer and in sourcing ingredients.

I would also like to explore sustainable seafood in India. While working with O Pedro and TBC, I learnt that there are a few of research institutes, which are working with local seafood purveyors and fishermen, training them in producing seafood, which is sustainable and non-toxic.

Shellfish depuration is another area, where currently we do not have many options in India.  

Film, health, food and probably textile would continue to be my areas of interest and work. Whatever involves travelling and working with people– importantly, working with people who work with their hands. I have an aversion to machines and assembly line production!

What are some important Edible Issues you are seeing today?

According to me, sustainable farming and affordable nutrition are some of the pressing edible issues today.

For the farmers,  lack of supply chain, access to the right markets to sell their produce at a good price and preventing the wastage of their farm produce are some of the challenges.  There is also a lack of awareness in the community on these issues.

In the race to create more shelf stable produce, taste and nutritional value is compromised — leading to long term health effects.