Every day in Cape Town there are households which struggle to access enough food. They eat foods that are nutritionally poor. They reduce meal sizes as their budgets shrink. They reduce meal numbers. They go hungry. And although the constitution states that everyone has the right to sufficient food and the state “must take reasonable legislative and other measures within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of (this right)”, the food insecurity of poor urban residents has been largely invisible to the state.

There is a profound urban food policy gap. For reasons of history, ideology and a few measurement/statistical quirks, food insecurity has always been viewed as a rural problem in South Africa. The government’s main food security directive, the Integrated Food Security Strategy, is accordingly positioned in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

This location has had two major impacts on food security policy. First, the strategic responses to food insecurity have been informed by the mandated department’s priority areas; they have therefore had a strong rural, small-scale food production bias. Second, because there is no municipal-level Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, there is no urban scale government mandate to address urban food security and no specific urban food strategy.

Although municipalities are increasingly aware of the reality of food insecurity in their areas of jurisdiction, the mandate to address food insecurity sits with national and provincial government.

So, although the impacts of food insecurity are felt at the local scale, local government is largely powerless to act within its mandate. But urban food insecurity is an urban problem, which requires a range of urban-appropriate solutions, of which urban food production is just one component. In urban areas, food insecurity is primarily a problem of access to food rather than availability of food. The vast majority of urban residents access food by buying it, and few urban residents participate actively in urban agriculture, finding it either undesirable or impractical given their living conditions.

In 2008, the African Food Security Urban Network (Afsun) conducted a baseline survey of food security in 11 cities in southern Africa in an attempt to understand the extent, causes and consequences of urban food insecurity. The survey results raise a number of questions about current approaches to urban food security and urban food governance. In Cape Town, 80 percent of households in three lowincome areas were moderately or severely food insecure. The same survey found levels of 87 percent in Msunduzi and 53 percent in Johannesburg.

More than 70 percent of Cape Town households reported that they had not had enough food at some point in the previous 12 months.

Despite constant availability of food within the city, there were distinct hungry seasons during periods of food price inflation, increased expenditure on other required items (such as fuel) and reduced income from seasonal labour. The households had limited dietary diversity, which has long-term health and development implications.

These findings and those of other studies challenge the official government view of food insecurity as a predominantly rural problem.

Reducing food insecurity in our cities requires a specifically urban policy response. Urban food insecurity manifests differently to rural food insecurity and has different origins. Food security policy and work to ensure the right to food cannot simply replicate models designed for rural areas and apply them in the cities.

Information about food sources indicate clearly that rural, small-scale household food production is not the solution to urban food insecurity. In the Cape Town Afsun survey, households were asked where they obtained their food and how frequently they acquired it from these sources.

Less than 5 percent grew their own food. Food markets were the main sources of food, 99.3 percent of households having sourced food from a supermarket at some point in the last year. Daily or weekly supplies came mainly from informal traders: 61.5 percent of households bought food from small shops/restaurants/takeaways (mainly spazas) and 55.1 percent used informal markets/street foods.

A mere 26.8 percent purchased daily or weekly from supermarkets. The geography of SA cities affects access to food and food insecurity in a number of ways.

Firstly, it shapes economic opportunities available for residents of low-income areas. Because of the dominance of markets as the primary source of food, access to employment and therefore income is an important cause of food insecurity. In addition, limited public transport means that many low-income workers have lengthy commutes.

They spend a large proportion of their incomes on transport, leaving less money to buy food.

Because of long commuting times, households choose to cook food that takes less time to prepare, and they buy and/or cook more pre-processed foods. These foods are often more expensive and less nutritious than less-processed foods.

The geographies of housing, employment and transport all affect food and nutrition insecurity.

The structure of the food retail market is also critically important. In South Africa, and globally, the location of formal food retail is skewed to wealthier areas. In the US and Europe this is known as the Food Desert phenomenon. Research mapping the location of supermarkets in Cape Town found that the highest-income areas of the city had over seven times as many supermarkets per 1 000 households than the lowest-income areas.

This limits the capacity of low-income residents to access food from these stores, which are often cheaper than informal traders. However, it would be too simplistic to call for a supermarket on every corner. The informal sector is often better equipped to sell products in volumes that low-income customers can afford, and will offer credit.

The impact of supermarket expansion on informal traders is not yet well understood. Given the role of both formal and informal food retail in providing food for the residents, the structure and location of these markets in the cities need to be considered in urban food security policy.

Household asset bases are also a crucial element of food security in urban areas. Food security is not simply determined by income levels – although income stability allows households to plan food consumption more effectively – but also by other household factors. For example, limited food storage capacity and refrigeration mean that households are less able to store fresh produce or take advantage of bulk buying.

Food security policy needs to move beyond a focus on household food production and poverty alleviation strategies. It needs to work with the broader causes of food insecurity in the broad food system and to understand how these connect to social, geographical, political and economic exclusion.

An opportunity to show how these considerations inform future food security strategies is at the May 24 and 25 Food Security Summit hosted by the Khayelitsha Development Forum. The Food Security Summit in Khayelitsha will bring together representatives from the NPC, the national Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, civil society groups and community members to discuss issues affecting urban food security.

It is hoped that this will generate strategies to empower residents and connect civil society organisations to develop locally-generated solutions to food insecurity. It is also hoped that it will play a role in developing city-wide strategies as well as incorporating urban concerns into future national food security strategies and policies. For this to be a success, however, the responsibility for the realisation of the right to food needs to be partially devolved to the city scale.

Dr. Battersby is a Researcher for the African Food Security Urban Network based at the African Centre for Cities, UCT.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.