How do cultural perceptions and urban aspirations affect what we eat? In the second chapter of the Food Dialogues Report, Leonie Joubert looks at Burger King’s whopping success in Cape Town, how fried foods are seen as ‘modern’, and the role food can play in empowerment and mental health.
When Burger King opened its first South African store in Cape Town in May 2013, people queued for hours to sink their teeth into their first Whopper burger. A few months later, the financial press reported that the franchise was in fact ‘rattled’ by the phenomenal success, with an unexpected R20-million in total revenue in just four months, and that they needed to find new suppliers to keep up with the demand for their fast food.
Even Burger King was a little taken aback by how well the brand had done in the Mother City.
Before the big multinational had even set its advertisers loose in the South African market, the power of the brand abroad had already gained traction in Capetonians’ imagination.
For many, this is what the excitement of the city is all about: busy high streets, glitzy shops, big name stores selling us phones, handbags, high-end watches, aftershave. For many, these overseas brands are sophisticated, modern and aspirational – and the big name fast food brands are at the forefront of this cultural force. How much chance does a bowl of home-grown salad greens stand against the full frontal assault of a Big Mac or a Hunger Buster Burger?
Culture determines healthy appetite
How we use food is deeply rooted in our cultural attitudes towards it. If we can understand what shapes our views on food, we can better address whether or not people choose healthier foods or not. We would be naive to think that simply giving people healthy foods will be reason enough for them to want to eat it.
Moving to the city can be like a tectonic force in terms of how it changes our perceptions of food. This is part of what’s become known as the ‘nutritional transition’.
An example to illustrate the point is the responses that a local healthcare-focused civil society organisation, Zanempilo, got from interviewing a group of women in Khayelitsha about their view of certain foods.
‘People who boil food are not civilised,’ one person said. ‘Fried food is attractive, tasty such as Kentucky fried chicken [sic]. If your neighbour boils food, people say she is still backward because the food does not taste nor look attractive.’
Others said it was faster to fry food than boil it, and that fried meat tasted much better than boiled meat.
Another survey, done in Johannesburg by academics from the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), found that some people preferred fried food because it is seen as a mark of ‘modern living and wealth, while food that is boiled is considered inferior and demonstrates outdated customs’.
For many, eating meat is seen as aspirational. Tony Gerrans from Compassion in World Farming says that the attitudes he has encountered in Afrikaans communities are often that hunting, braaiing and eating meat are associated with masculinity.
Abalimi’s Rob Small says that in Xhosa-speaking communities, those who slaughter animals have a spiritual role.
Healthy habits seen as ‘old fashioned’
Besides just these cultural attitudes towards food, urban life has torn us from the home kitchen and scattered us about a busy and bustling cityscape, which has disrupted traditional ways of communing over food.
The FAO study says that: ‘Traditional meals and mealtimes are replaced by spontaneous often unplanned food purchases on street corners or in small kiosks. The traditional model of one family member taking responsibility for meal planning and food preparation for the household has fractured in most urban environments.
‘Increasingly it is street food vendors, cafeterias at work or school and childcare facilities that provide family members with at least one and often several meals per day. Thus, attention to dietary balance and dietary quality, which was traditionally ‘intuitive’ at the household level, is now subject to wider cultural changes and external influence.’
If we hope to encourage people and communities to return to ‘real’ food, and to grow their own, we need to turn the tide on many of the attitudes that see growing vegetables as ‘old fashioned’ or something that ‘our grandparents did.’
Empowering through food
SEED (Schools Environmental Education & Development) is a NPO operating from Mitchell’s Plain, and has over a decade of experience in pioneering growing outdoor classrooms in under-resourced schools.
‘Empowering people through growing their own food is one way to change attitudes about the aspirational nature of fresh and wholesome food,’ says SEED’s Leigh Brown. ‘We need to boost green careers. People that blossom in the food freedom movement are those who get trained up and are able to find work in the field.’
‘People join our programmes to save money and for health reasons,’ she goes on. ‘Once they are engaged we connect them to the global conversation about food sovereignty – this grows the aspirational nature of fresh green food. Home food gardens boost local adaption to climate change and can give youth with no prospects the potential to join the green economy.’
SEED is using the Rocklands Urban Abundance Centre as a demonstration site for innovative low-carbon possibilities, with integrated education for schools, youth and people from the neighbourhood. They are growing community enterprises for food production and jobs.
Meanwhile Deni Archer’s pursuit of ‘Food with a Story’ captures tales of food that is ‘interesting, ethical and artisanal’.
Read more from the Food Dialogues Report
- Food security: Why city layout matters
- Food shopping: A guide for the flummoxed
- Food sovereignty: Politics and veggies in Cape Town
- Food culture: A city is what it eats
- Food gardens: The secret to success
- Food nutrition: The real cost of bad eating
This article first appeared in the the Food Dialogues Report. Click on the link to download the PDF (36mb), or flip through it on Issuu.