HUNGER AND HUMAN RIGHTS
‘What’s Eating Us’ – Maverick Citizen’s new food justice podcast dives into South Africa’s health crisis
The series features candid discussions with food justice activists and academics and highlights the body of investigative work done on our food justice project. Access to food and water is a huge issue, especially with regards to children’s needs and rights to nutrition.
Over the past year and a half Maverick Citizen has been working on the often underreported area of food justice, which covers areas of food systems and the right to have access to sufficient and safe food and water, particularly for children, as envisaged in the Constitution. We have also reported on how the denial of this right leads to malnutrition, hunger and a health system overburdened by preventable diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
Today marks the launch of What’s Eating Us, Maverick Citizen’s food justice podcast series.
It features candid discussions with food justice activists and academics and highlights the body of investigative work done on our food justice project by senior health journalists Adèle Sulcas and Laura Lopez Gonzalez.
The seven episodes tackle:
- Food literacy;
- The dangers of ultraprocessed food;
- South Africa’s food regulations;
- The myth of ‘lifestyle’ diseases;
- The phenomenon of ‘food deserts’;
- The harms of direct advertising to children;
- How advocacy and coalition-building led to a tax on sugar and where it is now; and
- How the “big food” industry is targeting low-income countries for the proliferation of unhealthy food.
The first episode is anchored by a discussion with civil society organisation Heala (Healthy Living Alliance), taking listeners through a wide ambit of the various aspects of food justice. This includes the importance of food literacy where ordinary people need to be equipped with the knowledge to understand what they are putting into their bodies and how this affects their health, as well as how to read and make sense of food and beverage labels.
Listeners will learn how the food and beverage industry shapes choices through subliminal marketing messages that make ultraprocessed food products seem aspirational and “deserved”, and about another similarly sinister strategy – “food deserts” – where parts of communities are starved of healthy food options and only have access to informal shops like spazas or fast-food outlets (particularly in lower-income neighbourhoods), forcing people to buy unhealthy and ultraprocessed foods.
Speaking about “food deserts”, journalist Laura Lopez Gonzalez explains that research “published in the South African Health Review found Gauteng was home to more than twice as many fast-food outlets as grocery stores in 2016. Black and low-income neighbourhoods were generally less likely to report having grocery stores.
“In at least 10 wards, the majority of which were black, the only formal place to buy food was a fast-food outlet, the study revealed. Johannesburg inner-city neighbourhoods, including some surrounding Pieter Roos Park, had exceptionally high concentrations of unhealthy food outlets.”
In April 2022, journalist Adèle Sulcas published an article detailing a report by the World Health Organization that showed how milk-substitute companies use tailor-made marketing and advertising to exploit mothers for profit. She highlights the insidious nature of this marketing that dissuades mothers from breastfeeding, despite proven research that breast milk is imperative for the nutritional well-being of children.
“The under-the-radar marketing techniques used by formula-milk companies include individually tailored and timed targeting of content to mothers and others who influence feeding decisions, social media influencers, online ‘baby clubs’, ‘user-generated’ promotions (that seem to come from a trusted source) and information from formula-milk brands’ own social media accounts,” says Sulcas.
The myth and the shame
Episode four of the podcast series dispels the myth of ‘lifestyle diseases’ which has been used to refer to diseases like hypertension, diabetes and obesity which often shamed people into thinking they brought these diseases on themselves through bad decision-making. Evidence shows, however, that the real culprit is changing food systems, the influence of advertising and industry interference in legislation, the inability of people to afford whole foods as a result of exorbitant pricing and the ever-increasing cost of living.
“The lack of access to affordable and nutritious food in South Africa is a health crisis,” says Nzama Mbalati, the programme manager at Heala. He explains:
“Disease in South Africa is fuelled by poverty and inequality. Without a concerted intervention to address food and nutrition insecurity, we exact a high cost to our future potential.”
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In episode three, discussing food regulations, public health lawyer Safura Abdool Karim talks about how the industry uses a tactic called “Delay, dilute, delegitimise” to skirt legislation that tries to keep it in check. For example: delaying the application of legislation using frivolous litigation; diluting through influencing the process of public comment on regulations; and delegitimising by casting aspersions on expert research proving the harmful effects of ultraprocessed foods.
The episode on direct advertising to children centres on Sulcas’s investigation into how “big food” uses advertising to create a desire and aspiration for unhealthy food like fried chicken, sugar-heavy beverages, sweets and biscuits in children who are particularly vulnerable because of their impressionability. This also ingrains in children and influences their bad food choices as they become adults, thereby creating a generational market for products. The industry also uses manipulative tactics such as images of happy families sitting around a dinner table enjoying ultraprocessed foods that are high in fat and salt, creating an aspirational draw to the products.
Part of what the food justice project has shown is how advocacy and coalition-building are pivotal in effecting change in the food industry. In episode three, a discussion with Abdool Karim and Mbalati reveals just how this coalition-building and mobilisation led to the implementation of the Health Promotion Levy (“sugar tax”), as well as how it has stalled, diluting its impact.
We also look into how the sugar industry contributes to the diabetes crisis.
One of the more sinister revelations is how the “big food” industry, having saturated markets in the middle- to high-income countries, is now targeting low-income countries as a new frontier for the proliferation of unhealthy ultraprocessed foods and beverages. Of particular interest is that South Africa is being used as a gateway to the rest of Africa and people are mostly unaware of this.
What the food justice project continues to highlight is that unhealthy food and beverage consumption and its impact on people’s health and our health system is complex. It raises questions about who is ultimately responsible for ensuring effective measures are in place to effect everyone’s constitutional right to “sufficient food” and “basic nutrition” for children, as well as their right to have access to the reliable, accurate information needed to make healthy food choices for themselves and their children without industry interference and manipulation.
Ultimately food justice is not only about the right to health, it extends to people’s rights to access to information, to human dignity and life. DM/MC