10 Jun Responding to crisis in a South African township: Community innovation for nutritious food in the time of COVID-19

There are so many ways that communities around the world are being affected by COVID-19. Most of what we hear is about the problems. There are, after all, so many. But as the problems emerge, so do the innovation and commitment to find solutions. In blog 32 in our series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, we hear about the community response to problems of food access in Masiphumelele, a township in Cape Town, South Africa. The authors, who work in Masi, tell a story of a township adapting with resolve to a challenging situation, in this case with community kitchens. The example shows that emergencies can be times where real solutions are found to real problems – and that if done with sensitivity by local people for local contexts, they have the potential to contribute to a more resilient food system over the longer term. – Corinna Hawkes

As the coronavirus hit South Africa, at least 1 in 5 households in South Africa faced inadequate or severe lack of food before COVID (1). 1 in 3 children under 5 were stunted. (2) 

In the area of Cape Town where I live and work, Masiphumelele, food insecurity is a reality affecting most poor households. In a survey conducted in 2019,  80-90% of our residents had, along with the neighbouring Ocean View community, experienced food insecurity, with about 40% having experienced hunger (3). For people in conditions of food insecurity, it is difficult to eat a diverse, nutritious diet. The result is all too clear: very high rates of  non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among adults, particularly diabetes and high blood pressure, combined with child stunting. 

The high prevalence of these forms of malnutrition is not because residents do not know what a nutritious diet is. It’s because substandard housing, overcrowding and financial precarity make them more vulnerable. These are the very same factors that make them more vulnerable to COVID19, especially when compelled to take frequent trips to procure essential goods or seek work. 

When lockdown came, many people lost income due to widespread closure of formal employment, the crackdown on the informal economy, and the banning of domestic and garden labour. Children are now home from schools, where they were once fed daily. This led rapidly to acute hunger for the thousands of people living hand to mouth. 

But it also led to innovation as the community sought to help each other and coordinate efforts. Three dominant approaches emerged, each with pros and cons: food parcels, vouchers and community kitchens serving cooked foods. Initially, a private donor made it possible for the largest NGO in the area to give thousands of food parcels and vouchers, allowing households to continue to cook within their homes. Yet it did not prove not sustainable; Masiphumelele alone has over 18,000 households in need, meaning almost R6,000,000 is required for everyone to get one R350 parcel providing very basic food to a family of four for about 2 weeks. Given  a basic nutritious diet for one month for family of four costs R2576.13 (4), this is both expensive and nowhere near enough.

Vouchers offer dignity and autonomy while potentially supporting existing retailers such as corner shops (spazas). Yet these too, if taken alone, are beyond the fundraising capacity of the network of NGOs working in Masiphumelele, given the long-term nature of the crisis.  

So as the crisis unfolded, our group of NGOs and community leaders explored the idea of small, decentralised kitchens. This was one response by individuals and groups in direct response to the COVID-19 crisis. Within eight weeks, the group was running 27 kitchens, with additional kitchens planned. The kitchens are proving a sustainable safety net for the duration of the crisis. They meet immediate need, particularly for children (who would ordinarily receive school meals) and for the elderly. They are led by the neighbourhood, thus able to reflect our food preferences. For example, each day has a different menu, “special” ingredients such as fish or chicken are sometimes sourced from donors, and the cooks adapt quickly according to the available food.  They are also spaces where social distancing and hygiene protocols can be observed.

Community kitchens also represent a longer-term solution. Cooking in a shack, or cooking from scratch at the end of a long days’ work was never feasible for many people in Masi. So, we’re at a moment where small collective kitchens represent one logical, affordable, and nutritious approach to both acute food insecurity, while engaging the broader context of long-term vulnerability. In our view community kitchens, if they can be enacted in cooperative, rather than top-down, ways, have the potential to transform the supply chain, food environment, and the lived experience of Masiphumelele residents. 

Firstly, in the immediate crisis, kitchens offer nutritious meals at lower cost through bulk purchasing and collective cooking. This can be done safely with physical distancing while also being an opportunity to discuss COVID-19 in queues and demonstrate the correct use of masks. Kitchens have initially focused on feeding children and the elderly, as cooks were initially unsure as to the acceptability of standing in lines. 

Secondly, sourcing from local growers and farmers offers resilience to these growers. Given changes in the international food market, some local farmers are unable to sell their produce and are faced with the decision to either sell cheaply to kitchens, or plough the produce back into the soil. The kitchens in our area are able to buy this produce in quantity, and then divide this nutritious produce between the kitchens, using collective drop-off points, including mosques, churches, and community halls. 

Thirdly, there is the potential for sustainability from an economic perspective because of the low cost. and diversity of funding sources. Food is currently purchased primarily using community donor funds to a few different accounts, with specific purchases being made by smaller civic organizations, community groups, and NGOs. Funds from city councillors have also been placed in a central pool in order to purchase dry goods for kitchens across three low-income communities (including Masiphumelele, Ocean View, and Redhill).

No one solution is perfect. Community kitchens offer less autonomy than vouchers or parcels, and may not always be acceptable to individuals needing support. They rely heavily on the voluntarism and care of women – who are not paid given the complexity of the crisis and the scarcity of resources. The kitchens will inevitably face challenges, such as cooks being infected with COVID-19 and scarcity of time and fuel for cooking. As such, combining and coordinating efforts across our geographic area, and using parcels, vouchers, and community kitchens in a flexible and coordinated way, will likely create a stronger and more sustainable safety net during this crisis, and beyond. 

The lockdown in South Africa has overwhelmingly burdened the poor economically, while failing to protect them from COVID-19, because so many serve as essential workers.  As COVID-19 takes its toll on people’s health both through direct infections as well as through economic and social ripple effects, the aftermath creates a canvas on which to imagine how to rebuild a more resilient food system. Our research has always suggested that there were no shortage of local, sensible answers for how to eat healthy (5-8). Today, faced with incredible need, there are answers being proffered for the immediate crisis, as well as the longer-term crisis of poor quality diets. 

Jo Hunter Adams is a Research Associate in the School of Public Health & African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town.

Jane Battersby is an Associate Professor at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town.

This article originally appeared on NutritionConnect on 9 June 2020.