A unique food and nutrition journey

Worcester was recently the location of a “learning journey” where participants gained first-hand experience of challenges in the town’s food system.

This innovative research approach encouraged participants to think about how food and nutritional security and sustainability could be improved in a town where one in five children are malnourished and many adults eat nutritionally poor diets. This, despite the town being located within a valley known for its food production.

Hosted by the Breede River Municipality (BVM) and jointly organized by the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, the Southern Africa Food Lab housed at Stellenbosch University, and the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership. The initiative included community members, activists, academics, early childhood development (ECD) practitioners and representatives from different levels of government.

Two journeys took place on foot to two areas that are important parts of the town’s food system. On day 1, participants went to Durban Street in Parkersdam, an area known for its wholesale and informal trade in food.

On day 2, which was dedicated exclusively to ECD in Worcester, participants visited Mayinjana Avenue in Zwelethemba, an area known for its educational establishments, including both primary and high schools, and several ECD facilities.

At the ECD centres, participants were shown around by staff and, on occasion, introduced to learners. Each visit ended with an informal conversation between school principals and participants, in which principals were encouraged to speak freely about the challenges they faced, and where participants were encouraged to ask questions.

The idea behind these conversations was to create a space free of preconceptions and judgment, and one which recognizes that all stakeholders involved in food systems have useful knowledge and insights.

In the afternoon, a learning lab was held where participants came together to share what they had seen and learnt. It was through this collaborative process that common problems experienced in the ECD sector were identified, and potential solutions were co-created.

Challenges in ECD

ECD principals identified several common challenges, with perhaps the most significant being how to turn land that appeared to be vacant into ECD food gardens to feed learners. The question of how vacant land can be used for food gardens is complicated because of local and national regulations governing its use and disposal.

The question of land is also complicated when it comes to ECD facilities that operate in areas that are defined as “informal”. As such areas are not officially zoned, ECD facilities  cannot formally register their existence there.

Without formal registration they cannot receive government subsidies, meaning they often lack funds to be able to feed children regularly and healthily.

The actual registration of ECD facilities was also identified as a problem because principals feel that it is complicated and expensive.

While numerous forms must be completed, fees must also be paid to the BVM to attain fire, and health and safety compliance certificates.

As some ECD facilities are unable to pay these fees, they cannot register, and suffer the same fate as those in “informal” areas in that they cannot receive government subsidies.

The seasonal nature of the work of many parents also makes the paying of ECD fees difficult, which also threatens the long-term viability of some facilities.

While these problems are complex, some progress towards solutions emerged during the learning lab.

For example, a commitment was made by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture to work with the local ECD Forum to support food gardens, while some councillors from Worcestor and Zwelethemba agreed to follow up on how vacant land could be used for food gardens.

Jackie Saaiman of the Lima Rural Development Foundation which is contracted by the Do More Foundation to provide various forms of support to ECD facilities, argues that the BVM could begin the process of exploring what vacant land is available for food gardens by undertaking an audit of the municipality’s land.

She also suggested that the municipality could help with ECD registration by waiving the fees associated with compliance certificates.

Participants agreed that there is clearly an urgent need to use methods such as the learning journey to cooperatively identify problems in the ECD sector and collaboratively come up with solutions, because, as Saaiman said, “ECD principals are doing such an important job in literally rearing the future.”