Food for thought
By Zayaan Khan
Food is one of the most political aspects of today, and moves between the boundaries of survival, basic rights and decadence. As with every aspect of our society, the history of colonisation has long determined who has access to food and who does not. The settlers crushed not only basic human rights, but also indigenous knowledge systems, which provided an essential understanding on what to grow, what to eat, what can be collected and harvested for medicinal purposes and how to prepare it. Green activist, Zayaan Khan is South Africa’s leading expert in entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) and is the co-ordinator for the Slow Food Youth Network. She takes a look at food security, preservation and the art of food.
In 2014, Stats SA reported that 1,7 million households (11.4% of all households) “contained an adult or a child that reported going hungry in the past 12 months”. An article by Africa Check indicated that determining how many people go hungry is complex and the available data surrounding food insecurity is often manipulated to serve the interests of the political elite.
The common rhetoric of large-scale food producers is to push for more food production in order to feed the growing population. This means more land and more resources are used to grow produce that ends up as highly processed food items, animal feed or used for other industrial purposes. But more food is not necessarily what we need. Richard Brasher, Pick n Pay CEO, revealed in 2015 that South Africa wastes a third of its food, this includes produce from farms, as well as that already in the production and value chain. Our squander is valued at R60 billion per year and equal to 2% of our domestic product. To add to these shocking statistics, those living on the breadline have to navigate rising food prices.
The 2016 Food Price Barometer is a report on monthly food price data taken from the shopping baskets of low-income households. The study, conducted by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (PACSA), has shown that a simple basket of food has become unaffordable to the majority of South Africans who live on or below the minimum wage. The NGO seeks to enhance human dignity and reduce socio-economic inequality and collects data on basic food purchases such as cooking oil, flour, maize meal and sugar. The study provides insight into the affordability of certain foods. The findings from retail stores which service the lower-income market is that caloric value is high but nutritionally it is extremely low.
Based on the current economic model, recognised food (commercial food) has quickly become commoditised and you need money to access nutritious, diverse foods. Food is also difficult to govern, it sits everywhere and almost nowhere, nutrition it is not the responsibility of a single governmental department: there is no Department of Food and Nutrition. Recently it is possible to study food systems within the academic institutions whereas before this was not possible.
There is also a scope of knowledge that is vital to accessing nutritious food outside of the financial system. Knowing which plants are edible, acquiring fishing or hunting skills, or preserve produce after harvest time in the heat of the summer is invaluable. Indigenous food revival is on the rise, and eating insects is still a valid food source for millions of people in South Africa.
Everyone is implicit in the food system, and people are surviving outside of purely using money to access food. There is a need to reassess how we see food, our relationship with the land and the value of indigenous knowledge holders, like our traditional healers and elders.
There are movements and local organisations and collectives who have solutions and are moving towards solving problems. Inspiring people to learn about food cultivation from seed to plate and not just seed to harvest is a vital role. The complexity of food as a system also incorporates cultural perspectives, spiritual awareness around food and how it is linked to an almost infinite cycle of life and recipes being passed down generationally. Assessing food waste and how we deal with food at a household level becomes part of this story. The most fundamental thing is building networks and bridging gaps within communities using food as a lens of practice.
Images courtesy of Zayaan Khan. Follow her on Instagram.