Building a sustainable food system for SA post-COVID

The immediate impacts of the COVID-19 public health crisis and the lockdown imposed from 27 March 2020 revealed the deep fragility of the South African food system. This disruption has clearly led to a period of deep uncertainty and change, but has also created an opportunity for a recalibration of the food system. Through careful engagement, this recalibration can create something new and emergent, building on local and more equitable food systems that offer more divergence and resilience.

The COVID-19 public health crisis quickly morphed into a hunger crisis. In poor communities, households that were struggling to feed themselves previously became desperate. Many poor households in urban and rural communities in South Africa already struggled to access food, medicine and other essentials before the crisis. This was exacerbated by the lockdown that radically suppressed the informal economic sector, upon which many households depend. Households that relied on informal trading or precarious work found themselves without any income to buy food.

Since the easing of the lockdown, household hunger has decreased somewhat with the latest NIDS-CRAM figures reporting hunger in 16% of households for July/August and child hunger at 11% for the same period. While the improvement of these figures from the previous reporting period is encouraging, the fact that more than 3 million people have lost their jobs and more than 1 in 10 of our children goes hungry has serious ramifications for the future.

For children under the age of two, poor nutrition can have permanent consequences placing such children at risk of stunting and obesity, lower cognitive development and delayed milestones and long-term health issues such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Dr Chantell Witten, Nutrition Lead for the South African Civil Society for Women’s, Adolescents’ and Children’s Health (SACSoWACH), argues “Child malnutrition casts a long shadow into adulthood. While hunger is a major concern and providing food is paramount to supporting nutrition adequacy, we need to focus on supporting hungry pregnant mothers, whose growing infants are under threat given the mothers’ poor nutritional status.”

This unacceptable situation raises questions about the dominant food system and what interventions might be necessary to address this immediate crisis, which has such clear long-term implications.  Our challenges will not be solved by reconstituting the food system that was in place before. To end hunger, we need to navigate the rapid changes underway and to work effectively to establish something new. Regenerating new systems is not a given; they need to be purposefully nurtured. We need to learn rapidly, and move towards investing in and facilitating the creation of new systems based on local needs and capacities.

Such recalibration involves re-establishing formal and informal markets, providing small-scale farmers and other producers with input supplies, including seeds and seedlings for continued production, facilitating supply lines for food to flow, enabling small enterprises (including food processing) to underpin these flows are all paramount for diversified food sources beyond the conventional food supply chains that largely converge in formal retail. It is imperative that healthy food is the core focus of these recalibrated systems. Highlighting healthy diets must be a central goal of these initiatives. Not only will this help protect people now, it will pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable food system on the other side of COVID-19.

The Southern Africa Food Lab’s eThekwini platform has been established to coordinate initiatives in the eThekwini and iLembe areas of KwaZulu-Natal to initially help address the impacts of the Covid-19 health crisis and to help enable new, resilient systems to emerge.  Our methodology is to work with local stakeholders, map local food system actors, assess how they are connected or not, understand and address power dynamics, and establish new flows of food emphasising fresh produce and local processing such as bakeries and community kitchens. In this way we connect actors in new ways that encompass a circular economy. The use of ICT is also embraced to enable information exchanges. Food safety has necessarily required a greater emphasis. Similar initiatives have begun elsewhere in the country, including a multitude of Community Action Networks considering their future post-Covid-19, the Stellenbosch Food Platform, and the Green Trust funded work in Gauteng, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal under the Seriti Institute.

COVID-19 has disrupted the status quo while revealing deep flaws in society. As these disruptions have become clearer, it gives us the opportunity to rebuild the system into one pivoting on social and ecological justice and equity. In other words, a recalibrated food system in which old hierarchies are disrupted, new collaborations emerge and the playing field more level. This crisis is an opportunity to improve the resilience of the system and, crucially, food security in South Africa.

Dr Scott Drimie is Director of the Southern Africa Food Lab (housed at Stellenbosch University) which exists to promote creative responses to the problem of hunger through multi-stakeholder dialogue and action.