Child-centric approach needed to achieve equitable food system

Without discounting the innumerable horrors of the pandemic we are living through, Covid-19 has removed any doubt that humanity can no longer afford to continue as it is. The pandemic has foregrounded the failures of the food system to provide sufficient, healthy, nutritious food. It is not serving the most vulnerable in SA, including children of all ages.

In SA, in particular, deeply entrenched ways of life crumbled overnight, bringing to stark relief the tenuous position in which we find ourselves. And for none is this more true than society’s most vulnerable — impoverished children.

To secure the future and improve the present, our thinking, planning and organising should be shifted  to a point where SA’s normal is a food system that revolves around the needs of such children.

World Food Day, celebrated last week, exists to draw focus to the need for more equitable food systems in future. The 2020 Child Gauge contends that our food system is driving the double burden of malnutrition and damaging both children’s health and the environment. This is because the health and wellbeing of children are not prioritised, as evidenced by the proliferation of cheap and unhealthy, high-calorific, low-nutrient foods dominating the market.

To SA’s chagrin, the country still has a high incidence of stunting. Children are defined as stunted if their height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the World Health Organization’s child growth standards median.

Obesogenic environments

In a damning rebuke from the 2020 Global Nutrition Report, we read that “SA has made no progress towards achieving the target for stunting, with 27.4% of children under 5 years of age [still] affected”.

Children in SA grow up in obesogenic environments in which food choices in homes and early-childhood development centres and programmes contribute to nutrition-related disease and death with significant effects on national development, health costs and education outcomes, costing billions in GDP.

A sustainable, affordable and healthy food system is one in which children’s needs are at the centre. The goal should be to enable all people, but especially the most marginalised, to participate in their own decision-making about food practices and behaviour. This ambitious goal requires a package of actions to coherently re-orient flows of food towards healthy diets for children.

Because malnutrition affects future generations, a life course approach unveils opportunities to focus on women of childbearing age, pregnant women, infants and young children, and school-aged children. Existing government policies acknowledge these groups but fall short in drawing in the wide range of actors needed to recalibrate the system as a whole.

The Nourished Child project focuses on how interconnecting systems shape the diets of women and young children. The project is a joint research study by researchers from the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and City University, London. It seeks to increase the understanding of what a systems approach to improving the quality of diets among children under five and women of childbearing age would look like in an urban setting to address under- and over-nutrition. This means ensuring that existing actions are better aligned to the intersections of different systems and designing new actions that recognise the challenges in peoples’ lives.

Nutrition ambassadors

The project, which focused on impoverished communities in Masiphumelele and Zweletemba in the Western Cape, began with researchers listening to the people facing the realities of a broken food system. These explorations led to discussions about what such groups could do themselves to enable change — internalising their own agency. The women of Masiphumelele intend to build a team to create awareness about nutrition and eating healthy food among their immediate networks and more broadly in the community. This was described as “a group of ambassadors” who would take on this responsibility.

Beyond awareness about nutrition, this team will establish a network among organisations and individuals working in the local food system — so they can actively connect people to opportunities once they have built awareness, establishing a network of support across the food system.

World Food Day calls for collective action that is needed here if we are to change the status quo of malnourished children with dim prospects. If there is to be progress in the quest for a child-centred food system, it will require all hands on deck. Such a system cannot solely rely on the government. It will also not be corporate driven.

For shifts to take place, a systems approach is needed, one which traverses society and includes multiple actors. A child-centred food system requires that we move beyond dialogue into concrete action in the very short term.

  • Scott Drimie is part of a leadership collective of the Southern Africa Food Lab, housed at Stellenbosch University. Yandiswa Mazwana is the founder and operations manager of the Masiphumelele Creative Hub where community members can use the power of creativity and art to overcome their daily challenges. 
  • This article was first published in The Business Day on 20 October 2021.