Activist sounds warning on food security

Nomonde Buthelezi is an urban farmer who addressed a virtual forum discussion, during the UN Food Systems Summit, about the plight of the poor and the prevalence of hunger.

Food security was shaky for many South Africans even before Covid-19 scythed through countless livelihoods, but the pandemic is pushing many of us closer to hunger, and unless we change the way we build communities and produce food we have little hope of reversing that trend, says Nomonde Buthelezi.

This food-justice activist, from Mfuleni, is the co-founder and head of the Food Agency Cape Town (FACT). Trained as an early childhood development teacher in the Waldorf system, Ms Buthelezi has worked most of her life in the food sector as a farmer, trainer in permaculture farming methods, and, most recently, a food-systems researcher. She collaborates with the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Cape Town on food justice research.

Last month, she addressed a virtual forum discussion, during the UN Food Systems Summit, about the plight of the poor and the prevalence of hunger. The discussion addressed the right to food for all, inequalities and unsustainable farming and distribution practices.

The participants explored how to accelerate the creation of more climate resilient landscapes that work for people.

Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg, of Muizenberg, is the spokesperson for the Heinrich Böll Foundation. She says the discussion stressed how important it is for food to be farmed in an environmentally sustainable way so African smallholders and pastoralists, who are among the worst affected by accelerating climate change, can make a living.

Ms Buthelezi spoke about the realities in Mfuleni, using life there as a reflection of large parts of South Africa where poverty – either pre-existing or created by job losses from the Covid-19 pandemic – has edged people ever closer to daily hunger.

“When food parcels were handed out to the poorest of the poor during hard lockdown in the first Covid-19 wave, I was astonished at the content of these packages,“ she says. ”They could barely be described as food, let alone nutritious. They filled people up, but there was nothing nourishing in them, and there was no fresh produce at all in them.“

Ms Buthelezi used the initial community food kitchens which popped up, led by various Community Action Network organisations, to create an information network.

“If you want to know what’s going on, you talk to the gogos,” she says. “Through FACT, we are now connecting local growers with people in need.”

Poverty, she says, is not just about food, it also means poverty of access to things like airtime or data or information on how to apply for grants or where to get medical help.

Speaking at the summit was a new and somewhat intimidating experience for her, she says, but she wanted to make it clear what food security means to ordinary people, not corporates or global institutions.

“I want it to be understood how badly we need to build resilient communities hand in hand, with the people in them.”

Through FACT Ms Buthlezi has interviewed Mfuleni households first hand. “What must be understood,“ she says, ”is that black people are proud; we don’t want to tell anyone we are hungry. We are taught not to wear poverty written on our foreheads.

“There is another side: if foreigners conduct surveys about food, one of two things happen: our people will see them as white saviours and make it so their story is the worst to ensure help, or they will deny any trouble. By doing the surveys myself and with people in the community, the true stories emerge. And they are heart-breaking. And preventable if we get everyone growing their own urban garden.“

The idea, she says, runs contrary to the current situation where large companies sell over-priced food to people who can barely survive on it never mind thrive.

Barbara Unmussig, president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation says: “What we need is a people’s food systems summit that aims to end hunger and malnutrition, protect ecosystems, and provide small farmers with a decent livelihood. No matter how much food the world produces, failure to address power imbalances in the global food system will mean that hunger persists. Those most affected by the negative consequences of large-scale industrialised food production must play a vital part in discussing how to transform it.”

According to Mervyn Abrahams, from the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, Covid-19 brought already high levels of hunger to new highs. The PEJDG has produced the monthly Household Affordability Index (HAI) since June 2018.

The 2018 General Household Index found that 21% of households ran out of money for food.

Mr Abrahams says that over the past year, as unemployment rocketed, the average cost of the household basket of the poorest households has increased by R384.78 or 10% to R4 241.11.

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