Western Cape food security: a snapshot

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Infrastructure, safety, cleanliness and service delivery. These are all concepts that readily spring to mind when discussing the successes and failures of a city’s governance.

But, what about food? Surely, as one of our basic human rights, it’s something that should feature prominently in our political views.

To many of us, however, food is something entirely separate. A feature of our private lives – a personal choice – that has very little to do with anyone else, least of all the government or other powers that be. Or maybe … it’s just that way to those of us who can afford indifference and choice.

As Africa grows ever more urbanised and the gap between rich and poor cleaves deeper, food security and the systems that make it possible have come to the fore as topics that require more discussion and deeper understanding.

In a bid to stay ahead of the curve and practice the age-old adage of prevention being better than cure, the Western Cape Government (WGC) has come up with a six-pillar strategic framework for household food and nutrition security, called ‘Nourish to flourish’.

According to Tristan Gorgens, Acting Director: Human Development, Policy and Strategy Unit, Department of the Premier, the plan has three big thrusts to it, which could roughly be categorised as follows: awareness and support; food system interventions; and food resource management.

Awareness and assistance

Of course, the first step toward facilitating the creation of healthier societies is to ensure that people have enough (not to mention, the correct) information to make better choices for themselves and their families.

Keeping this in mind, the Western Cape Government has initiated a number of education programmes, spanning various demographics, to help create a broad base of knowledge regarding healthy lifestyle choices. In 2015, the provincial Education Department, in partnership with Woolworths, the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and dieticians Shelly Meltzer & Associates, launched the Healthy Eating Guide – a plan that helps schools (from principals and teachers to tuckshop staff and parents) develop a healthy food policy. The whole premise of the guide is that schools should offer food that is a reflection of what children learn about healthy eating in the classroom. This has since been followed up by the Healthy Tuck Shop Guide, which offers even more practical suggestions for the type of snacks to stock.

School feeding programs            

To further ensure nutrition through education, school feeding programmes have been put in place across the province, giving just under half-a-million children access to at least one meal a day.

“The data tells us that there is no better investment society can make than ensuring that kids are well-fed – a well-nourished child becomes a properly healthy, fully-integrated member of society,” says Gorgens. He adds that there is as much evidence showing the wide range of legacy effects adults who were malnourished as children face: rates of employment are slightly lower, while rates of behavioural issues are slightly higher.

While these feeding programs are undoubtedly doing substantial work, Gorgens believes that they can be fine-tuned to work even more effectively by getting into the nuts and the bolts of the system.

“Are there small tweaks we can make that would end up making a huge difference? For instance, sourcing from local food gardens? Are there some small-scale farmers we’ve overlooked? Is there something we could add to the existing menu that would give them a vital additional nutrient? All that kind of stuff.”

Food gardens

As Gorgens mentions, food gardens could be an excellent source of food security – if, of course, managed and maintained properly.

In the Western Cape, there are currently four main types of food gardens: individual, community, school and a much smaller category of food gardens connected to clinics.

Among these, Gorgens and team believe that the school garden could hold the most long-term benefits, not only for children but also for the communities surrounding the schools.

“It’s a potentially profound opportunity, both for educational purposes – teaching kids about gardening, food and where food comes from – and also for nutritional purposes – supplementing the school feeding programs with fresh vegetables straight from the garden.”

Apart from this, it could also assist in creating additional employment opportunities for community members and be a living example of how one can eventually move to becoming more self-sustaining.

“Evidence from around the world also tells us that there’s a link between effective food gardens and effective school governance. The causality is not clear at this stage – whether good school governance means a good food garden or vice versa. But the fact is that food gardens bring people together and this strengthens bonds and raises interest.”

A nutritious foundation

Shifting focus from schools to pre- and post-natal nutrition, the First 1000 Days Programme offers education and support for mothers with newborns – starting at conception and ending with the child’s second birthday. “There are key developmental milestones in those first two years that you can’t actually regain once they’re gone,” Gorgens explains.

“Stunting is a particular health phenomenon that’s pretty much decided by the time you’re two. It holds very concrete health concerns and very concrete cognitive concerns, so it’s a pretty big deal that we get it right in the early days.”

Working within this framework, the Western Cape Government is looking at ways to encourage workplaces and employees to be friendlier environments for breastfeeding mothers, so that babies aren’t switched over to formula nutrition prematurely.

Food system intervention

In 2015,  it was found that 17.4% of households in the Western Cape had inadequate access to food and 21% of households in Cape Town are seen as disadvantaged. Limited access to healthy food has led to the Western Cape having the highest rate of overweight and obesity in the country – among both adults and kids; and across genders.

“People can afford to buy food, but they can’t afford to pay for really nutritious food. So, they get trapped in this kind of space between the two systems. In other words, they can’t afford to go to Pick ‘n Pay or Woolies to buy fresh food there. But they can afford to go to their local spaza shop and buy processed food – that’s where the tendency toward obesity comes from,” explains Gorgens.

The only way to fix this problem is to adjust the food system in ways that will offer lower income households a fair opportunity to purchase healthy food at more regular intervals.

More support for nutritious food in informal markets          

Most poor families can only afford to do one batch of bulk shopping a week from a commercial retailer such as Pick ‘n Pay, Checkers or Shoprite. The rest of the time, however, they will make small additional day-to-day staple purchases from the most convenient locations – either spaza shops close to home or informal traders along their commute route. Due to the impermanent nature of these stalls or the lack of appropriate infrastructure (such as large fridges, cooking facilities etc) at spaza shops, it’s a much safer bet for these traders to stock long-life products, instead of fresh goods. This, of course, makes it very hard for poor families to buy fruit and vegetables, because it’s simply not available.

“Because of the way our city is laid out and the way the market operates through the city and also because of the unemployment rate and inequality, it’s very difficult for most households to make wholehearted healthy choices,” says Gorgens.

And this is the puzzle the Western Cape Government is now trying to figure out – how can one make healthy eating an easier choice for people, while honouring the limitations of government.

Gorgens believes that a lot can be remedied by simply paying closer attention to the planning decisions made in cities and how they affect the food system. One way of doing this may be to crowd in support for the sale of nutritious food in informal markets, which would require holistic level reconceptualising of what the informal economy represents, through to more pragmatic, sector specific practical interventions. According to a draft paper recently written on the topic and presented at the Food and Nutrition Design Lab held at Stellenbosch University on 8 March, these would  include, among others, getting the informal business to be recognised as part of a food security solution, formalisation where appropriate, streamlining areas of government, encouraging food enterprise by making opportunities for spatial/activity clusters and enhancing efficiencies in food markets.

Resource management

While education and food system interventions may be central to helping more people make more healthy choices more easily, the effective management of resources is the foundation on which everything else rests.

Of course, the challenges presented in this area are major and mostly beyond human control. For instance, a severe drought and the possible invasion of fall armyworms are two significant challenges plaguing farmers and other producers of food at the moment.

Although not much can be done in the throes of such crises, Gorgens says the WCG has been working closely with farmers to ensure that plans are in place to deal with these issues proactively.

SmartAgri and climate resilient farming 

Working with UCT, as well as local farmers, the department of agriculture developed a program called SmartAgri that basically looks at how different parts of the province are going to change in the next 30 years, particularly in terms of climate and water.

Asking questions such as: where will there be more rainfall? Where will there be less? Where will it be getting hotter? Where will it be cooling down? they have managed to put plans in place to start transitioning to farming methods that are optimally effective. For instance, replacing a certain crop with something more resilient, watering earlier or later than previous years etc.

“So, this program basically ensures that we’re working with climate change, instead of against it. And, ultimately, there’s an economic element to it – because if we can be proactive about it, we can position ourselves as leaders in South Africa.”

Preceding SmartAgri somewhat, the Conservation Farming program started encouraging small grain, vegetable, fruit and grape farmers to move away from industrial methods toward a more sustainable approach – employing crop rotations and the like – as far back as 1998.

While the benefits of making this switch may not have been apparent immediately, Gorgens argues that when the drought started hitting hard last year it was clear that the farmers who had made the switch to conservation farming were generally faring a lot better than their industrial counterparts.

“So, that’s real evidence for us that this is the way of the future.”

Food governance

What should be obvious by now, is that food intersects with so many other sectors that it’s particularly tricky to monitor, evaluate and, in essence, govern effectively.

“One of the things we’ve struggled with – and it’s actually a central part of the governance pillar – is that there’s not a lot of good data about food. We just don’t know what’s happening. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing and there’s no central place where one can go to get information on the food system as a whole,” says Gorgens.

As part of an initial step to remedy this, the WCG recently hosted a 2-day workshop in partnership with Southern Africa Food Lab where people from different spheres of government, civil society and the private sector got together to grapple with the ins and outs of the ‘Nourish to flourish’ strategy framework and come up with at least six actionable plans that can be put in place around food security in the Western Cape.

Prior to the workshop, six specific areas were identified as being particularly conducive to practical initiatives and various institutions were commissioned to put together draft input papers surrounding them. The topics were as follows:

  • Promoting breastfeeding through workplace interventions
  • Understanding ECD’s as sites of opportunity for food security
  • Realising the social and economic potential of food waste
  • Crowding in support for the sale of nutritious food in informal markets
  • Unpacking the potential of school food gardens as community hubs
  • Exploring the opportunity for the promotion of fresh food market outside the metro

Following this, the papers will be refined and finalised for presentation at a high-level workshop convened by the Department of the Premier on the 23rd March 2017.

While the WCG has certainly made huge headway in ensuring that people – especially children – are fed, Gorgens expressed his hope that this workshop will break ground in expanding food security to initiatives that span all sectors of the food system.

Featured image: Lukas Budimamaier/StockSnap

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