Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


Community food systems can help alleviate the scourge of hunger, say activists

Community food systems can help alleviate the scourge of hunger, say activists
What is needed is a transition “towards a food system that decarbonises, improves nutrition, builds equitable livelihoods, and is ecologically harmonious.” (Photo: iStock)

Community food systems can ensure all members of the community receive their nutritional and culturally appropriate food needs through a network of food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management.

Many people in South Africa are planting and growing their own fruit and vegetables, either in their backyards or through community food gardens. Maverick Citizen spoke to two food activists to get their perspectives on sustainable food systems.

Land and food activist Nomonde Buthelezi runs Food Agency Cape Town (Fact), a non-profit organisation.

“We are a collective of farmers, activists and consumers whose main objective is to rethink community spaces and try to destigmatise the issue of hunger,” said Buthelezi.  Her organisation also deals with issues of gender-based violence, as it is primarily women who buy and prepare food, and a lack of food often leads to domestic violence.

Buthelezi said one of Fact’s major focus areas was to ensure that community voices were not left out of food discussions, giving the example of shops being opened in a community without consultation to ascertain what the community’s food needs, preferences and allergy concerns are.  

“I started out as a home gardener, went on to being a street farmer and then an urban farmer when I managed to get a piece of land just bigger than my front yard,” said Buthelezi.

She then became involved in research into urban farming in South Africa and Mozambique, which looked at the issues urban farmers were facing, such as access to land, water and food. When Covid-19 hit, Buthelezi’s research extended to how farmers were surviving during the pandemic. 

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She was “unhappy” with the food parcels the government started providing to communities, as they contained food with high fat and sugar content, some of which was nearing expiry. 

“It was as if they had forgotten about the health aspect of food and were just concerned about filling the bellies.”

It was then that she started thinking of ways for people to get nutritious food through a community kitchen system that would bring urban farmers into the value chain.

Nomonde Buthelezi is a food and land activist and runs Food Agency Cape Town. (Photo: Das Seminar für Ländliche Entwicklung (SLE))

“Inasmuch as urban farmers grow food, this food is not really consumed in our communities. People in our communities are only too happy to go and buy vegetable combos from … supermarkets which they don’t know have chemicals in them and the health implications. They would walk right past my farm. There is so much education needed on the organic food we are growing so my food ends up being boxed and sold to the elites.”

One of Fact’s aims is to repurpose community kitchens into spaces that are more than just about food and can equip people with what they need for sustenance.

Buthelezi said that rather than giving people a bowl of food, they should be taught how to farm in small spaces.

Community forum

Luke Metelerkamp is a farmer and research associate at the Urban Food Futures programme at the TMG Think Tank for Sustainability, and has been working with communities in Cape Town to research issues of food security and their intersection with Covid-19.

“One of the findings from that research is that there was a need for a community forum so that people can come together to discuss the food challenges that they were facing and also propose solutions. 

Luke Metelerkamp is a farmer and research associate in the Urban Food Futures programme at TMG Think Tank for Sustainability. (Photo: Food Tank)

“People said they could see that there was a lot being done but they didn’t have a seat at the table and that’s where our arrangement with Fact came about, with dialogues at a local level around food.”

Urban Food Futures looks at how the rapid pace of urban development and globalisation is affecting food production, distribution and consumption. Metelerkamp said that discussions on food security had always primarily had a rural focus.  

Food security

“One of the things that emerged from the Covid research was that urban farmers and fishermen, people who are actually involved in producing food at the source, were the most food insecure.” Metelerkamp said this problematised the notion that food production necessarily meant food security for those involved.

“There’s often been this focus on seeing production as the solution for ‘people are hungry, we need to support them to grow food’, that there aren’t jobs so growing food is the solution. From a production point of view, there’s a bit of a narrative that also needs to be broken around urban hunger and urban production.”  

TMG was focusing on systemic support interventions for people who have been excluded from the formal economy, spatial development and education system to be food secure. Metelerkamp said being food insecure often came with a sense of shame and stigma and the issue of food needed to feature more prominently on the national agenda.  

Metelerkamp has been working at writing retreats with women involved in community systems. The women, including Buthelezi, are writing a series of chapters that will come together in a book titled  What’s Cooking? Adding Critical Feminism to the Pot. DM/MC


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