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Food Retail: Realities, Futures And Fictions

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

It has been over six months since COVID-19 upended life as we knew it in Cape Town and the country as a whole. Now, as we catch our breath, one word in particular keeps coming to mind: adaptable.

Farmers and consumers alike have had to adjust to new conditions and protocols, facing disruptions to nearly every aspect of daily life. As a team, we were grateful that we were able to open the Oranjezicht City Farm Market during level 5 lockdown and have been operating safely since.

We have been humbled by the opportunity to provide a crucial service in a time of need and by the patience and flexibility of our customers whose weekly market shopping experience was turned upside down.

The Oranjezicht City Farm Market at the V&A Waterfront is a gathering and meeting place – but also an alternative grocery provider, offering a shortened supply chain between farmers and consumers, by reinstating small farms as the food source for the community.

By choosing to eat what nature is offering – grown or produced locally in a transparent supply chain – consumers can support a new approach to food; a new relationship with cooking and eating, that can be found in consuming responsibly.

Our mission is to try and ensure that small farmers regain their economic foothold in the marketplace, and that the knowledge and choice of local food becomes the norm – not the exception.

We wish it didn’t take a pandemic for people to realise that a homogeneous, centralised food system is a weak one. This is a moment when we need to learn lessons, and learn them fast, about how we cover the basic needs of our population.

We hope that one of the things we realise as a society is how we are too reliant on a handful of food producers that are mostly turning out products that harm us rather than heal us. Our food system belongs in the hands of many family farmers; not under the control of a handful of corporations.

What does a decentralised, healthy regional food system look like? It looks like small to mid-size farms, maybe one acre (less than half a hectare), perhaps 10, maybe more. They are run by people who care deeply about their community, about the health of the natural world, and about their peer producers.

On one visit to a local farm last week, 10 local farmers participated. They wanted to connect with each other and share best practice: “What’s the protocol around safety? How are you getting your food to your people? What are you doing with all your food meant to go to restaurants?” And most importantly, “How can we work together?” A communal network – the exact opposite of the conventional food system controlled by very few – provides a type of economic immunity to those farmers. This is the kind of system that has a better chance of withstanding harsh shocks.

Civil society activists are concerned that while supermarkets have lowered the cost of food – they are also increasing the risk of health-related diseases by providing calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, unhealthy food.

Supermarkets are predominantly supplied by large-scale industrial agriculture – that is ecologically unsustainable – reducing soil health and biodiversity, contributing to the pollution of our waterways, and making a significant contribution to climate change.

Our food system is further dominated by a few large farms, which sell their product to a few large processing companies, who in turn sell that food to a few large supermarket chains. About 20% of the 30 000 commercial farms in South Africa produce about 80% of our food. These big food companies are extremely efficient at delivering cheap food, but they are not efficient in terms of delivering food that is healthy.

Interestingly, despite the fact that supermarkets account for approximately 68% of all food sales in this country – they make up only a small percentage of all food retail outlets. The informal food economy comprises a dense and diverse network of informal markets, suppliers, transporters, mobile traders, hawkers, retailers and street food vendors, making food more accessible and affordable in low-income areas.

Many South Africans can only afford to buy processed food, high in carbohydrates and sugar, with little nutritional value. Fast food, snack foods and sugary drinks have kick-started an obesity epidemic contributing to a rapid rise in diet-related diseases, especially in underprivileged and vulnerable populations.

In 2008 the African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) sampled low-income households in SA and found that 80% are moderately or severely food insecure, meaning that they don’t have physical and economic access to nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active, healthy life.

Probably the biggest problem when it comes to food security in this country is employment. The present food system isn’t a significant generator of jobs and this is driving poor people off the land.

When the lockdown measures were first announced, the only food retailers that could remain open were supermarkets. Alternative providers of food, such as that provided by hawkers and spaza shops, were all closed. There was a surge of trade with long queues outside supermarkets, especially in poor areas. Attempts to enforce social distancing in and around supermarkets by SAPS and SANDF didn’t work, with clashes happening at township supermarkets.

With the disappearance of the informal economy, the poor had no alternative but to buy from formal outlets, and the wealthy and those with disposable income, who might otherwise have supported restaurants and fast food outlets, bought directly from supermarkets too. The formal food system was protected, while enormous numbers of people (the working poor, those in the informal economy) suffered a sudden and long-term loss of income.

The COVID-19 pandemic had quickly become a hunger crisis.

If there is just one outcome from the pandemic in South Africa that could be considered positive, it is this: for perhaps the first time, the reality of household hunger and malnutrition has become visible to policymakers.

In April, the cost of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s (PMBEJD)

basic nutritional food basket (for a family of four persons) was R2 576.13 – an amount that in a normal working-day month of 22 days is more than 70% of the national minimum wage. No family with one person earning at the national minimum wage of R20.76 an hour (and working for the full month) can afford adequate nutrition.

It only takes basic arithmetic to calculate that the combination of income losses, price hikes and supply chain disruptions will make food inaccessible to the poorest.

This global pandemic has brought difficulties and stresses that none of us could ever have imagined, but through it all we’ve noticed an overwhelming sense of community. What that’s translated to is a rise in consumers looking to buy from local businesses and smaller brands that need their support.

Local is the new normal and getting food from a trusted source is now more important than ever. Buying from a local grower who shares their story can help us understand our food’s provenance and better connect us with the food we eat. If consumers know what goes into making and growing their food, it helps makes producers more accountable. In turn, this encourages safe practices and the use of less resource-intensive systems, creates employment opportunities and promotes organic produce.

As consumers, you have the right to make a choice.

Author: Sheryl Ozinsky

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