There are two things about our food supply that really underscores the fact that we are indeed still a third world economy. The first is the incredibly erratic supply of produce and other grocery items, and the second is the incredibly variable pricing for the same exact item. The main reasons for this annoyingly crappy retail environment? Consumers that are neither quality nor service conscious, nor as a group possess enough buying power to sway the retailers, lousy distribution capabilities, non-existent proper storage facilities, a lack of real competition and virtual monopolies or oligopolies for vegetables and fruit, tons of red tape associated with importing a head of celery, local growers hit with all kinds of costs on their way to the markets, and the list can go on and on. Bottom line, compared to many of our neighbors, we have unbelievably limited choices, erratic availability and bizarre pricing. Donâ€™t get me totally wrong, things have improved dramatically in the past 10 years, but we are decades behind other similarly situated and economically positioned nations.
What brought this on? Capsicums or sweet bell peppers, plums and Charmin toilet paper, of all things. Okay, I admit this isnâ€™t a rant on the lack of rice, cooking oil or patis, but it is a valid point nonetheless. For many years, I bought very expensive imported multi-colored capsicums when I first moved back to Manila. They are a staple in my salads and antipastos and I love them. At the time I used to pay roughly PHP350+ per kilo or roughly USD6-8 a kilo. Then I was thrilled that local growers started growing them and I bought as much as I could to do my small part to encourage local growers. The prices dropped to PHP250 a kilo and they were seasonally available due to being grown outdoors. Then big business got involved and like asparagus, we started growing capsicums by the ton or multiple tons in high-tech greenhouses under controlled conditions (often for export, with the dregs left to the local market). Sure, they were a bit tasteless and bland, but they were still pretty good. Suddenly, they were always available and the prices dropped to PHP120-150 a kilo, depending on where you bought them. Then mysteriously, about 2 months ago they all but disappeared from local markets. Did we have a capsicum plague? Did all of the growers simultaneously decided to take a two month break from growing the peppers? Does the world market not eat capsicum in July and August? WHAT? WHY? WHO KNOWS? WHY SHOULD I CARE? At any rate, they have suddenly reappeared and I got some nice yellow capsicums at about PHP250 a kilo last weekend, followed by some red ones at PHP200 a kilo at Market!Market! during the week, then red ones again at Rustanâ€™s grocery at just PHP145 a kilo the other day and today I saw them at the market at PHP220 a kilo. Obviously supply is restored, but pricing is a TOTALLY AT YOUR OWN RISK kinda thing. Go figure. Rustanâ€™s was the cheapest source.
Then comes the plum irritant. I have been buying plums like I had constipation. Actually, I use them extensively in sugarless plum shakes. And recently, I have decided to attempt a plum pie or tart so I needed a lot of plums. Last weekend I bought California plums at the Salcedo market at PHP200 a kilo. Then the other day I walked by the fruit vendor at the basement of Rockwell Mall and their plums were a whopping PHP280 a kilo, so out of whack in fact I asked twice. So I headed inside Rustanâ€™s grocery and the exact same plums were just PHP175 a kilo or nearly 40% less. Of course I bought them at Rustanâ€™s, which again was the cheapest source. Cheaper than a non-airconditioned market. Go figure again. And finally, Charmin toilet paper. I know this is a luxury item in the local context. But my rear end is important to me. And I would happily abstain from buying some ridiculously overpriced t-shirt or only text or use my cell phone once a day (instead of the 68 times that the average Filipino seems to feel they MUST use their cellphones) so that I can afford premium toilet paper. In the past 10 years back in Manila, I think I have only run out of Charmin ONCE and last week I had just three rolls left and couldnâ€™t find Charmin ANYWHERE. The last recourse was prevailing on friends at the ADB (Asian Development Bank) to buy a few rolls at the commissary but I was determined to find some in a local grocery. Thank Goodness Cash & Carry had some in stock and I bought 72 rolls, enough hopefully until the other sources get their supplies back in. Arrgh. The travails and minor irritants of shopping for groceries in the third worldâ€¦