Who wakes up and worries about food insecurity in the city?

Gareth Haysom

The South African state’s responsibility for addressing food security forms part of their obligation to ensure the progressive realisation of the Right to Food, a right enshrined in the South African Constitution. However, the governance processes in place to secure that right, and more generally, the attainment of food and nutrition security, have been exposed as being woefully inappropriate as a result of the various challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some background is useful in understanding these challenges, as the policy architecture offers insights into the emerging issues. This policy architecture is one of the reasons for the COVID-19 -related food system responses being so deeply problematic for many poor South Africans, and even more challenging for those in urban areas. Despite the constitutional obligation placed on all South African state structures to ensure the progressive realisation of the Right to Food, operationally the responsibility of addressing issues of food security is, and has been, designated to three different national government departments: Agriculture, Social Development and Basic Education. The National Department of Agriculture is the lead department and frames the programmatic food security-specific response.  Implementation is then largely delegated to provincial agriculture departments. Food security responses articulated in key strategic documents, such as the National Development Plan for South Africa reflect a distinct agrarian and production-oriented positioning. This is further demonstrated by the structure and focus of the earlier Integrated Food Security Strategy (IFSS) and the 2014 National Policy for Food and Nutrition Security (NPFNS). Both were birthed from within the Department of Agriculture and despite pronouncements of integration and inter-departmental and cross-scalar collaboration, responsibility for implementation fell to that Department.  The rural/agrarian framing remains deeply embedded in how food and nutritional security is understood, programmed, funded, and governed in South Africa. A further two policy responses directly facilitate the realisation of the Right to Food. First, South Africa has a large school feeding programme, the National School Nutrition Programme, managed through the National Department of Basic Education. Secondly, various forms of social grant were afforded to over 44% of South African households in 2019.  These grants represent a key injection of cash to vulnerable households and play a critical food security role. Despite these different programmes and policies, urban food security is conspicuously absent from food and nutrition security planning and policy.  According to 2018 World Bank figures, two thirds of South Africans are urbanised. Surely a food security policy that considers far more than just the production of food is required in a country with such a high urban demographic?  The current rural and production bias fails to adequately consider the accessibility, utilisation and stability dimensions of food security. The inadequacy of current policies are brought into stark focus when the epidemic of childhood stunting, adult obesity, and other diet-related disease indicators are considered. Crises can crystallise policy responses, breaking from conventional policy lethargy and traditional approaches that generally favour politics over evidence.  Shortly before the 2008 food crisis, the African Food Security Urban Network, carried out a food security survey in 11 cities in Southern Africa. In Cape Town, 80% of low-income households sampled were food insecure. The situation was even more severe in Msunduzi, where 87% reported being food insecure. In Johannesburg, the figure was 42%.  The average for the three cities combined was 70%. The 2008 South African food crisis prompted the formation of a special policy advisory group, convened by the Development Bank of Southern Africa. This group actively sought to restructure South African food policy, seeking ways to build resilience in the food system, with a distinct future planning perspective. One of the primary areas of focus, thanks largely to the AFSUN data, was to de-scale food security responses, enabling a measure of urban food systems governance. However, as the 2008 crisis receded, so did interest in urban food policy and the issue rapidly fell off the agenda. When the policy architecture of newly elected president Jacob Zuma emerged, even greater attention was given to rural and agrarian processes. At the city  scale, food security responses primarily consisted of piecemeal support for urban agriculture or emergency food parcels. Cape Town was the first municipality to formulate a comprehensive Urban Agriculture Policy (UAP) that sought to respond to both livelihood and food security needs. In 2013, key city officials agreed that it was necessary to expand on the UAP, and called for the development of a broader City Food System Strategy.  The foundation for this planned strategy was a  commissioned city-wide food system study, the Cape Town Food System Strategy (completed in 2015). The Study made far-reaching recommendations, pointing out multiple areas where city officials could proactively respond to the food security, nutrition security, and wider urban food system challenges faced by many Capetonians. However, for reasons detailed elsewhere, the Strategy was not made widely available and very few officials, politicians and civil society actors ever saw it.  The Study clearly detailed the different roles that the City could play in responding to food system related crises. It provided clear evidence and guidance on the functioning of the urban food system, and gave particular attention to where poor communities purchased food and how frequently. The Strategy also highlighted three important features of the food system:
  • the importance of the informal sector;
  • the changing nature of the formal food system and the role and distribution of supermarkets; and
  • the importance of social networks in responding to food stress in poor communities.
These three characteristics are critical to any discussion of what unfolded following the enforcement of the South African nationwide lockdown as a result of COVID-19 on Thursday, March 26th, 2020. The political elite in National Government, and those advising National Government, appeared to imagine a food system that was purely formal in nature. The scope of the lockdown demonstrated shocking hubris in the understanding of the how the food system actually worked.  It was simply assumed that the urban poor would be able to access the food needed through the formal sector, and that there were sufficient reserves at the household scale to both engage the formal food system and to ride out the lockdown period. The unfolding food insecurity crisis in Cape Town, and across South Africa, as a result of the  COVID-19 lockdown graphically demonstrates how thin the food security veneer is of food security for the majority of households.  Globally, South Africa imposed one of the most rigid forms of lockdown.  The state acted quickly following the first cases and needs to be commended for what is considered to have been a bold leadership move. However, it is in the detail where the flaws in the approach, and the disregard for both food related issues and the lives of the urban poor, become most evident. It is also here that the misalignment between food security policy and the lived realities of many South African households is laid bare. During the first phase of the lockdown the only approved food retail outlets were so-called grocery stores (primarily supermarkets) and spaza shops. Informal street vendors and those transporting food to these vendors were barred from operating. After collective lobbying and multiple approaches to government, the lockdown regulations were amended on the 6th April to allow the sale of fruit and vegetables by street vendors.  However, local municipalities were advised that they needed to ensure that informal traders had permits to operate.  Many municipalities delayed and others who tried to issue permits were inundated with requests. A key challenge was that the permitting process was confused.  It was unclear if a trader needed a certificate of acceptability, issued by the health department, a trader permit, generally issued by urban management, both, or something else. When it came to enforcement, law enforcement was also unclear.  Vendors who had the requisite permits were closed down, migrant and refugee traders were barred from trading.  As a result, the informal food trade slowed significantly, and the poor bore the brunt of this confusion.  Deprived of employment income and ready access to food, many took to the streets in protest.  Food delivery trucks were also hijacked and robbed. What will emerge when the immediacy of the COVID-19 related crisis dissipates? What will the ‘new normal’ look like in cities like Cape Town?  The significant challenges faced by many households were tipped into crisis by the COVID-19 lockdown regulations, but are certainly not new, and have been simmering below the surface for a long time. The veneer of the modern supermarket-driven food system is and remains a false hope. Thick community networks have allowed many to “get by” but this has never mitigated widespread food insecurity. While the Cape Town case mirrors the rest of South Africa, Here the particular history of other pre-COVID initiatives provides a lens for the type of food policy needed going forward.  First, there is the provincial government’s Nourish to Flourish Strategy. Second, there is the recent embedding of food concerns in the City of Cape Town Resilience Strategy.  Both interventions have demonstrated the critical role that institutional processes can play at a time of crisis. The potential value of the Resilience Strategy is that it explicitly seeks to “establish a food systems programme to improve access to affordable and nutritious food”. Both processes lay a foundation for engagement and response plans to avert the immediate, emerging, and anticipated food system challenges associated with COVID-19. Both policy processes have created a viable platform were COVID-19 responses could be operationalised. The value of the Nourish to Flourish and Resilience Strategies is that they have created active networks formed between civil society, city governments and academia in trying to resolve different food system challenges, including informal trade permissions, emergency food distribution plans, planning for the retention and integration into the market of small scale producers, and supporting processes to develop hygiene guidelines for informal vendors. The new openness of the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Provincial Government to engage in local food strategy development needs to be commended. However, this is  being done without a formal urban food mandate. National and Provincial government departments still seek to retain their position as the governors of the food system, of food and nutrition security. The COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated that a nationally controlled and governed food system is flawed.  There needs to be a far more integrated and urban scale response to food and nutrition insecurity.  We do not need urban ministries of food, but cities need to play a far more proactive role in the urban food question.  Cities have been forced to do this by COVID-19 and this needs to continue. The new normal needs to include designated, resourced, and empowered urban food governance officials who can work across city departments and mandates, and across stakeholders at the urban scale. Without this, the next crisis will see a repetition of the current situation, which is more a hunger and food insecurity pandemic than a medical pandemic.

Article by: Gareth Haysom

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