How much money families have for food often determines the heathiness of their diet as well as the viability of locally-grown food gardens and all their community benefits, writes Leonie Joubert in Chapter 7 of The Food Dialogues Report.
The idea of a ‘food desert’ comes from Europe and the US where, in the 1990s supermarket chains were pulling their stores out of poor inner city neighbourhoods because they weren’t turning enough profit. The result is that people living there couldn’t find wholesome, nutritious, affordable foods that were close to where they lived. Meanwhile supermarkets, which often have more affordable healthy foods because of their bulk buying capacity and scales of economy, tended to put stores far out in the suburbs, catering for wealthier people who, importantly, had private transport.
This is how the profit-driven nature of the food system in a free market economy can shape the kind of food that’s available to us in different neighbourhoods in the city.
The food deserts in Cape Town, like many South African cities, are different to those in developed world cities. Supermarkets aren’t retreating from poor communities, they’re actually expanding. Dr Jane Battersby and her colleagues at UCT’s African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) recently mapped where the Cape Town’s supermarkets are. They found that most of them are in wealthy suburbs, where the highest income areas have nearly ‘eight times as many supermarkets per household as those in the lowest income (areas)’.
However they are expanding fast into low-income areas. ‘The number of Shoprite-owned stores has increased from 38 in 1994 to 82 in 2012,’ says Jane, ‘and much of that growth has been into low- income areas.’ But AFSUN says the kinds of foods that supermarkets stock in township communities is often highly processed, nutritionally poor and cheap. This means they’re speeding up the nutritional transition, causing people to move from traditional diets to ones that include more refined, processed, energy dense foods that are low in nutrients.
Keeping money ‘local’
When social grants are paid out at, say, a community hall, people often spend it at nearby hawkers, street traders and other vendors. This means local people buying from local people – money comes into the community from the state and remains within the community, circulating and boosting the neighbourhood economy.
In some township communities, shopping malls are moving in and national retail chains are opening stores . Many of these large retailers now pay out social grants on behalf of the state, instead of through state facilities, such as the Post Office or a local community hall. This means that people go directly from their grant pay-out queue, into the store where they spend their money.
The result is that money is siphoned out of the community and into the national retailer’s profit margins. This means that informal markets, which are important for local economic development, might dwindle.
When food markets are ‘off grid’
Township traders, hawkers and other informal food traders are an important but often invisible and under-appreciated part of our resilience against hunger as a city. They may not be able to match supermarkets gram for gram on price, but they can ‘leapfrog’ parts of the formal food system in a way that benefits the poor. They are often more flexible and responsive to their customers’ needs, than formal retailers: their stores pop up wherever their customers are, which helps families save on the considerable transport costs of having to travel outside of their neighbourhood to buy food. They aren’t constrained by formal opening and closing times. They absorb a lot of the second- or third-grade produce that is rejected by retailers and would otherwise go to waste. They often allow customers to buy on credit, which helps for low-earning families who might run out of cash at different times of the month.
Unfortunately, as Jane writes, while ‘supermarkets are generally free to do business without any significant degree of regulation… the urban informal food economy… is regularly the target of control, regulation and draconian eradication policies’. Operation Clean Sweep in Johannesburg in 2013 is a case in point, where informal traders were evicted from the inner city.
Street traders are threatened by city policy that doesn’t see their value to the food system, and also by the competition of the supermarket system that might put them out of business.
Boosting the local economy
The OZCF has created four full- time and 11 part-time jobs for previously unemployed people. The Saturday Market Day has generated about 100 part-time jobs and an annual contribution to the local economy of about R15 million since it first started trading in April 2013.
No one knows how much money changes hands among the thousands of informal roadside food traders around our city. The informal food economy – right from the niche farmers’ markets like the OZCF market, through to the hawkers who sell oranges and avos at the traffic lights – plays an important role in the city:
- They keep food flowing, including into parts of the city where formal retailers don’t reach.
- They create jobs, not just in agriculture, but in shipping, packaging, independent retail, and informal township and street trading.
- They keep money circulating within the community economy, rather than allowing it to be siphoned out into big national retail chains.
The formal retail sector, civil society, local and provincial government all have their part to play in nudging the system in a direction that allows individuals and communities to have greater power in the food system that impacts them. Nicholas Wiid, with the Western Cape provincial administration, says that the province’s Green Economy and the Food Forward projects, are geared towards merging ‘green’ approaches with the economy.
‘We are applying a ‘transversal’ approach as a way to break down the silos of government. Although the Green Economy programme is only two years old, we can already see the benefits of integrated decision making and project implementation,’ says Nicholas, ‘We have taken great strides in positioning the Western Cape as leading green economic hub of the African continent.’
He says provincial government has an important role to play in terms of creating an enabling envi-ronment that unlocks economic opportunities in the green economy. The work being done by government in this space has a strong focus on attracting investment into the region as this supports job creation, in particular low-skilled employment opportunities.
Why we can’t leave the market just to ‘be’
The government has largely had a ‘hands off’ approach to the formal food industry, allowing it to self-regulate in terms of the kinds of food it produces, and the way it markets those foods. Now the medical fraternity is calling for a firmer hand from policymakers. The Lancet’s ‘Special Report on Obesity’ in 2011 points out that self- regulation hasn’t worked, that the profit-driven nature of the private sector is too powerful a motivation to continue selling highly processed, refined and sugared foods associated with the growing health problems tagged to the Western diet and urban life.
Children in particular need protection, according to The Lancet, since their brains are still young, immature and impulse driven at a time when exposure to this food will leave them vulnerable to learning addictive behaviour that’s hard to break later in life. This calls for legislation in a way that throttles the overexposure that children get to certain foods, and that protects them from the powerful advertising and marketing forces that promote these foods.
Policy can also be used to reduce the amount of hidden sugar in foods.
Often, when legislation is punted as a way to control the food industry, detractors say we shouldn’t be creating a nanny state. As health writer Mandi Smallhorne argues, the current laissez-faire system actually limits our freedom of choice. The food industry, she says, is already ‘nannying’ us.
‘For example, the fact that manufacturers are allowed to put sugar in just about anything, without any restrictions, takes away my choice. If I don’t want food that is overly sweetened or salted, the industry doesn’t give me that choice.’
The clout of the middle class
It’s being called the ‘Tim Noakes effect’: middle-class Capetonians have adopted the high-fat and low-carbohydrate diet that this sports scientist is advocating with such enthusiasm that there’s a shortage of double cream yoghurt and cauliflower (a starch substitute) in stores. The market demand is so powerful that dairy producers are reducing the amount of sugar in some of their products. Middle-class shoppers have enormous power to sway the market, simply by how they choose to spend their money and where they choose to shop. This force can be used to push the market to respond, and may also stimulate lower-income communities to copy their behaviour.
- By choosing to shop from small farmers, farmers markets and all manner of local food suppliers, rather than large retailers, shoppers can have an impact on creating jobs in those communities, keeping money within those communities, and helping to stimulate business.
- As more and more people demand meat, dairy and eggs that are grass-fed rather than grain-fed, farmers will respond.
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
- Food ecosystem: Greening up our plates
- Nutritious food? Why money matters
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.