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Six scary food facts from lockdown (plus possible solutions)

In the first few weeks of hard lockdown, we all had to adjust our habits – and our relationship with food.

© Jeffrey Abrahams
Standing in long, physically distanced supermarket queues was a common experience during hard lockdown.

For those with a secure income, South Africa’s lockdown soon became about home-baked banana bread and online shopping. But for many whose income dried up as the economy withered under a series of lockdowns, the biggest concern was where the next meal would come from.

South Africa already has a fragile urban food system – with unequal access to food in most of its cities and towns. The lockdowns exposed this, especially for the marginalised and poor who experienced increased food prices and decreased access to food.

© Jeffrey Abrahams
Who could forget the poignant images of tiny children waiting in queues at neighbourhood soup kitchens for their daily meal?

These stark realities – and sometimes hard-to-swallow facts – remind us of the ongoing, elevated food crisis resulting from Covid-19 lockdowns, as outlined in a recent WWF report titled Urban lockdown lessons: Insights and opportunities for equitable food systems.

We can, and should, learn from the fall-out of this pandemic and use these insights to build an urban food system that is more resilient to future shocks, including climate change.

One of the lessons we have learnt too, is that our local authorities are well positioned to be first responders and leaders in these disasters. So here are six insights – with related opportunities – into how we can make our cities and towns more resilient, especially in times of crisis.

© Jeffrey Abrahams
Young kids in Lavender Hill in Cape Town wait to receive food from a feeding scheme during lockdown.

Insight #1: Inequality in our food system
South Africa is a highly unequal society where poverty and hunger persist, despite high agricultural productivity that should support every citizen’s nutritional needs. We need a coordinated and equitable approach to our food systems.

Opportunity #1: Cities are a good place to start a conversation about what needs to be done to change our food system so that nobody needs to go hungry.
Insight #2: Municipalities have the power
Even though local government in South Africa has no formal mandate to address food security and nutritional issues, municipalities do have the constitutional power to deliver water and electricity to communities. When it comes to securing the right to food and basic nutrition, these two services are essential for cooking, cold storage and clean water.

Opportunity #2: Municipalities should look at how they structure their electricity and water tariffs, as well as extending water services to communities that do not yet have a safe, sustainable source.
Insight #3: Informal traders feed the poor
In 2013, the highest-income areas of Cape Town had more than seven times as many supermarkets per 1 000 households as the low-income areas. The government’s lockdown regulations, as well as national policies, have had a considerable bias towards the large-scale formal sector. The current food supply chain is dominated by large corporations. Yet, in poorer neighbourhoods,70% of people buy food from informal food traders. Informal food traders play an integral role in the food security and nutrition in urban areas.

Opportunity #3: Local governments should shift from being regulators to becoming enablers by building positive relationships, especially with small-scale farmers and the informal food sector. Municipalities can improve food safety and regulate fresh-produce markets to connect small-scale farmers and informal traders with consumers. They can also reduce food waste by linking efforts to food banks and by promoting the safe reuse of urban waste.

© Jeffrey Abrahams
Municipalities should build positive relationships with informal food traders.

Insight #4: Pandemic hunger prevails
Of 7 000 people surveyed, almost half (47%) reported running out of money for food in April 2020. In households with children, 8% of respondents reported frequent hunger, which is defined as three or more days a week.

Opportunity #4: Municipalities can invest in setting up registers of food-poor households – with the help of civil society organisations – to quickly be able to reach vulnerable populations
Insight #5: Food access is a problem
Many people had to travel further to get food, resulting in increased transport costs and undermining the point of the lockdown. Due to the intense lockdown restrictions, many people lost their livelihoods and the marginalised and poor had decreased access to food due to suspended school-feeding schemes and the closure of informal markets and spaza shops. Plus, informal food traders had to get written permission from a municipal authority before they could trade in an informal settlement.

Opportunity #5: Municipalities must address bottlenecks in the food value chain and reduce the regulatory burden on food traders in low-income and informal settlements.
Insight #6: Urban farming is part of the mix
While urban agriculture won’t be able to feed everyone in South Africa, there are benefits to urban farming, including a greening of urban spaces, a reconnection to the soil and an increase in the diversity of diets with access to more fruits and vegetables. Supported by new responses and structures, cities can advance integrated planning to address systemic food and nutrition challenges – and to encourage a wider societal response.

Opportunity #6: Municipalities should integrate urban agriculture into city planning, and support food projects and farmers’ markets. 

© Jeffrey Abrahams
Urban farming should be built into the spatial plans of local authorities.

Food inequality learnings from lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic showed that the inability to withstand stresses in the food system is produced by social inequality, reduced access to resources, poverty, poor infrastructure and inadequate systems of early warning and planning.

There is a need for a more hands-on approach from local government – metropolitan, district and local municipalities – to advance the right to food and nutrition together with the right to a healthy and safe environment as we grapple with climate uncertainty, the nature of the post-lockdown economy and the recovery of the labour market.

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager: Environmental programmes

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

Want to know more?

Read WWF’s the lockdown lessons food inequality report.