Food Heroes: Fighting against hunger and malnutrition

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated another devastating crisis: hunger. Heroic efforts are required from a range of actors to combat this scourge, writes Jane Battersby. 

The theme of World Food Day 2020, on 16 October is Food Heroes. It is clear that this year needs food heroes more than ever before. The Covid-19 crisis has had a devastating effect on food security and food systems globally and within South Africa. The first wave of the NIDS CRAM survey found that 47% of respondents had run out of money to buy food in April. While this proportion reduced to 37% in June when the second wave of data were collected, the extent of the food crisis in South Africa remains shocking and devastating for basic health and wellbeing

However, we know South Africa experienced significant food and nutrition insecurity even before Covid-19 hit. Around 60% of households in Cape Town were unable to afford a nutritionally adequate diet ahead of the Covid crisis. The country’s rates of child stunting are unacceptably high, at 27%, indicating widespread, chronic malnutrition. The reasons for food and nutrition insecurity are complex and systemic and will require a range of Food Heroes to fight this challenge.

Since 2008 the food research at the African Centre for Cities has focussed on food and nutrition security and how this connects to food systems, urban systems and now health systems through a number of large, multi-partner projects, including AFSUNCUPHungry Cities PartnershipNourishing Spaces and our latest project, the Nourished Child. This work has revealed food heroes in unexpected places and opportunities for new heroes to step up.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the Nourished Child project has had to adapt its research methodologies to continue research without risking the health of researchers or participants. As part of this, we commissioned photographer, Samantha Reinders, to take photos in one of our field sites to use within our now remote research. These photos provide snapshots of the kind of food heroes that need celebrating and supporting not just on World Food Day but every day.

The first type of hero is typified in this first image. Across South Africa individuals, community groups, community action networks, NGOs have stepped up to respond to the food crisis and provided emergency food relief. Significant progress has been made in supporting these heroes. For example, the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, together with the DG Murray Trust and Cape Town Together, have established a Community Kitchens fund through which community kitchens receive vouchers to buy food from local vendors, thus providing support to the local Food Heroes and supporting local economic development.
The second group of heroes are not new heroes that have emerged in the crisis, but the long term, everyday heroes. These are the informal food retailers, who ensure that low income residents are able to get food in unit sizes that are accessible, that sell culturally appropriate food, that will offer credit to known customers, but who also provide a range of other community goods. From our research we know that these traders and spaza owners also provide eyes on the street and increase street safety, that spaza owners will look after house keys for residents for their children to collect at the end of the school day, will store household goods in the wake of informal settlement fires. These unsung heroes are essential components of the food systems serving the most vulnerable. And yet, these heroes have been consistently excluded from policy debates about food security and were criminalised, marginalised and excluded during lockdown.
While we all know that mothers have various superpowers, our research has repeatedly highlighted that women, who are often also the main breadwinners, are also unsung Food Heroes. In the urban African context, food still remains largely the domain of women. When women are in charge of the household budget, they’re more likely to spend that money on food, further boosting a family’s likelihood of keeping hunger at bay (Skinner, C. 2016). During these times of economic hardship with raising unemployment numbers, families who live this close to the breadline on a limited, often unreliable budget, survival means a constant series of rational, calculated, often difficult trade-offs to try and keep their families fed. If accessing the urban food system is dependent on having cash from either a job, a small business, or a social grant, it means that women need to be able to operate within this system if they’re going to be able to take food home to their families.
Masiphumelele for The Nourishing Child Project/African Centre for Cities UCTThe final group of heroes are the heroes yet to realise their powers. The work of the various food projects conducted under the auspices of the African Centre for Cities has demonstrated how much real access and utilisation of food is shaped by factors beyond household income and the food system. An individual’s ability to meet their food and nutrition security needs is shaped a huge number of factors, including access to reliable and affordable energy, safe water and sanitation, quality of housing, access to public transport, street safety, and quality of infrastructure available to retailers. Our work has argued that this means that local and provincial government play a significant role in shaping food security, and that food sensitive policies and planning that fall within their existing mandates can greatly enhance food and nutrition security. Opportunities abound for new Food Heroes to emerge.