How do the cities we live
in shape what we eat?

Being food secure isn’t just about being free from hunger, it’s about having a diet that’s wholesome and nutritious. Carrying extra weight is often the fallout of exposure to foods, over a long period of time, which are packed with energy but have little nutritional goodness

Being food secure isn’t just about being free from hunger, it’s about having a diet that’s wholesome and nutritious. Carrying extra weight is often the fallout of exposure to foods, over a long period of time, which are packed with energy but have little nutritional goodness

7 Myth Busting for a Better Food System

There are many ideas that try to explain how African cities feed themselves. Some of these theories may no longer hold true. In this final chapter, we look at what the evidence on the ground tells us about the food gap in cities, and gives some suggestions for how to plan for well-fed, well-nourished communities.

If you were to wander down to the water’s edge in the Kenyan city of Kisumu – say, Lwang’ni Beach, just off Marine Drive, or the pier at the immigration port a little further south – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the fish being served from any of the take-away kiosks along the way had been pulled directly from the waters of this little gulf on the northeastern shoulder of Lake Victoria.

The reality is that this part of the great lake is choking under a blanket of the alien weed, water hyacinth, and the once abundant waters are so badly polluted by wastewater flushing out of the drainage systems of the fast-growing but underserviced city, that fish stocks here are collapsing.

The freshwater fish being bought and eaten in Kisumu mostly comes from much further afield, sometimes from across the lake at fishermen’s haul-out points in Uganda, or as far away as a Chinese export harbour.

There are many theories and assumptions that try to explain how the urban food system works in Africa. Some of them may not hold true any longer, or may call for a more nuanced understanding, and the evidence emerging from this project helps clarify some of these in the context of a city in the Global South.

One of those ideas is what theorists call the City Region Food Systems paradigm – the idea that smaller African cities feed themselves from locally sourced foods, and that a return to ‘the local’ in terms of food supply is something we should encourage. This ‘model’ is often put forward by organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations as the solution to the food and nutrition gap in cities that leave many hungry, heavy, and sick. But while locally grown or supplied food is part of the multi-pronged response, it shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet.

“Being able to work on the ground as we did through the course of this project, we’re now able to show that the reality in these African cities doesn’t necessarily correspond with what’s seen as the norm, or even aspired to as the ideal,” says CUP researcher Dr Jane Battersby.

“These secondary cities are far more globally connected than the theory suggests, and these global connections aren’t limited to modern, formal supply chains. Informal trading is central to how this whole system works, and by no means only local. The structure of the food system is shaped by complex and interconnected factors beyond municipal, provincial, or even national government competence.”

It’s not only about producing more food

Many city administrators can be forgiven for thinking that matters relating to food security don’t fit into their job description or jurisdiction.

For decades, the question of food security has been viewed as a problem of rural poverty, or agricultural production. For city planners or bureaucrats, this means the problem is far outside their domain, and sits in whatever department takes care of agriculture or rural development.

As long as farmers are coaxing enough yields from their soil, the belief goes, the markets and supermarket shelves will be full and people will be fed.

If we simply produce more food and make it cheaper, we’ll fill the food gap. How does this production-bias express itself at the level of a city’s food policy? We think, then, that if people are hungry in our cities, we should encourage them to grow their own food. The result: policies and programmes that support urban agriculture projects.

“Being food secure isn’t just about being free from hunger, it’s about having a diet that’s wholesome and nutritious. Carrying extra weight is often the fallout of exposure to foods, over a long period of time, which are packed with energy but have little nutritional goodness”

Food gardens are, without question, one small part of the bigger solution, Battersby and her team argue. These can be an important contribution to help trickle-feed affordable, fresh produce into local city markets. But they’re not going to address the wider range of reasons that cities’ food systems fail to fill the food gap.

Previous work by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) has already shown why some urban food garden schemes fail. Things like a person’s precarious and unpredictable income, a general lack of time to get their hands in the soil, the fact that they often don’t have secure tenure over their land, and risky environmental conditions such as poor soil or unreliable water supply, all make food farming in a city risky. For someone living on the breadline, investing time, labour, or resources in growing fresh produce in their back yard, or a nearby communal area, is way too risky.

For the poorest of the poor, if someone has three hours of labour to trade on any given day, they need to give that labour in exchange for cash, so they can buy food for the family today. They often can’t risk investing that labour in the promise of spinach leaves that might be ready to eat six weeks from now. Some better-off households in lower-income neighbourhoods do tend to grow their own food when they can. But for the poorest families, urban agriculture works when these gardens provide wage-earning jobs for the farmers, so they have money not just to buy food, but also for school fees, phone airtime, electricity, and so on. When a poor family has to stretch a minute budget across so many competing needs, wholesome, expensive food is often the first to get bumped off the list. People will fill themselves up on refined, filling staple foods such as bread or porridge, which don’t have much nutrient goodness, but at least stop hunger pangs in the moment.

Busting this myth – the notion that food security is only about making sure there are enough calories in circulation in the city – allows local governments to grapple with the much more complex solutions to creating food-secure cities. It’s not enough just to have food coming into the city: it needs to be the right kind of wholesome, nutritious and culturally appropriate food; it must be affordable; it must be available close to a person’s home so they can carry it if they can’t afford transport; and they must have cash so they can buy the food, either through having a wage-paying job, or a social grant, or some kind of business that earns them a livelihood. If all else fails, they need to lean on some kind of community network that will lend or give them food when they have no other way to get it.

“Urban agriculture can help, but the much more important story here is the question of municipal services and infrastructure when it comes to supporting a functional city-wide food system,” says Battersby.

She elaborates, “Local governments have to roll out infrastructure fairly across the entire city. Households and retailers need access to water, sanitation, cooking energy, temperature-stable storage, and so forth, if they are to be food and nutritionally secure. This is often overlooked, but it’s critical that municipalities deliver on this front.”

Heavy but still hungry

Rising obesity in our cities can also confuse matters: at one level, being fuller-figured in this part of the world is something we can relate to because it signals to the world that our family is well-off and that we’re not sick, and it makes us feel that we fit in and are part of the community.

But at the same time, carrying extra weight can be misleading because it makes it look as though we’ve got ample food in our lives and are therefore food secure.

Being food secure isn’t just about being free from hunger, it’s about having a diet that is wholesome and nutritious in the long term. Carrying extra weight is often the fallout of exposure to foods over a long period of time that are packed with energy, but have little nutritional goodness. That’s why obesity is often called the ‘hidden hunger’, because a person looks well fed, but is actually malnourished. The cost of the associated diseases is enormous, to the person with the illnesses and their families, as well as to the state.

Another part of this story is the notion that a person’s diet and health are a personal matter, unfolding in the privacy of their homes, and the result of their own choices and desires. The thinking goes that it’s therefore up to the individual to educate themselves about health issues, and make the right food and lifestyle choices if they wish to be healthy, fit and lean. The upshot of seeing hunger and malnutrition as something that happens in the privacy of people’s homes is a set of policies that are geared towards the household and the individual, such as handing out food aid or encouraging food gardens.

Busting these myths – that carrying some extra weight signals an abundant diet; and that being obese is a personal choice – allows local government to realise that these health-related questions aren’t just the responsibility of the individual, or that responses to it should be left with the state’s healthcare sector.

Three ‘headlines’

After three years of studying these smaller cities in sub-Saharan Africa, the CUP researchers have drawn three key ‘headlines’ from their time in the communities they visited.

Headline 1: poverty at a household level is multifaceted and complex. For a city family, this is measured in how much time they may have, or whether they have transport, or basic household assets. It’s tallied in whether they have basic infrastructure and services in their homes and neighbourhoods, such as running water or electricity, or whether there’s enough cash to meet all their monthly expenses. It shows in their budget choices and ultimately what food they choose to eat, even if it’s not healthy food. That’s why this book isn’t about food, per se; but rather about how poverty expresses itself through people’s food choices and health.

Headline 2: the city is shot through with an intricate network of informal and formal food systems, from processing, packaging and shipping, through to myriad forms of retailing, be it prepared restaurant food, groceries, roadside take-away vendors or drive-through fast-food joints. The most visible in the system are those in the formal food economy. Supermarkets and malls, with their gleaming, contemporary finishes and aspirational brand names, are seen as the poster children of the modern African city, and city administrations often give them special favour, in terms of planning or service provision.

But the informal food economy is more important for poorer communities, in terms of bringing food to their neighbourhoods, or giving jobs that allow people to make a living and buy that food. From the perspective of the urban poor, these two economies are symbiotic, and cities should nurture both. Local government needs to be more deliberate about including informal food operators (processors, transporters, and retailers) in the fibre of the city’s economy, and giving them the space they need to operate, as well as the municipal services they need so they can operate cleanly and effectively.

Headline 3: today’s cities are not discrete islands, supporting themselves by drawing food, water, energy, skills, or labour from their immediate surrounds. The supermarket shelves, open-air markets and roadside food traders’ stalls in today’s African cities are stocked up with produce that is shipped in from trade routes that may start just a few kilometres away, or tap into regional networks, or are global in scale. Each one of these different trade routes helps make a city more resilient against the kinds of shocks that might lead to local-level hunger or famine.

Realistic city policies and planning will take this into consideration, and understand that economic forces, trade policies and many other factors that are at play outside the city’s immediate jurisdiction, nevertheless have an impact on the kinds of food available in the city, and its final price tag. Governments need to plan their food systems by thinking across these different scales, and integrate this with spatial planning in mind.

Parting shots

Consider just how much of our day pivots around moments that involve food: where we’re sitting down to a main meal with some friends; or buying a piece of barbecued chicken with pap from a roadside trader while we dash to work; planning our child’s school lunch; or picking up a few groceries for the weekend?

Food is at the heart of our day, it’s central to our lives, and it’s the bedrock of our health and wellbeing. Food is also an architect of the very city we live in: it shapes how the city is laid out, how the urban economy works, and how we engage with the city and each other.

Creating cities that allow people to be well fed and well nourished calls for local governments who are attuned to the complexities of the food system, the layout of the city, and the multifaceted nature of urban poverty.

There’s no silver-bullet solution to fixing the food and nutrition gap in this urban context. The food system is an “interconnected web of activities, resources, and people that extends across all domains involved in providing human nourishment and sustaining health, including production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food”, as Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger describe it in Food, Farms and Community: Exploring Food Systems. If city administrators and planners and policymakers can see it that way, and understand the complexity of it within their own cities, they can look for points of leverage within that system, and tailor solutions that are best suited to that situation and context, such as finding employment and livelihood solutions, nurturing the different strands of the informal economy, or curbing the influence of Big Food.

The starting point to being deliberate about creating cities that are sustainable and properly nourished, is to understand what’s really happening on the ground. And the stories emerging from this three-year research project help show some of the complex and often unseen forces at play, which ultimately shape what we eat in the city, and why, and how much that costs us in money and health.

The roadrunner

The closing story for this book unfolds amongst a group of people at a taxi rank somewhere in downtown Kitwe, where a queuing woman waits patiently with her fellow commuters, an amaCheckers hanging from one hand. An amaCheckers is a South African word for plastic grocery bags of the sort sold by any supermarket, not just those with the Shoprite-Checkers branding. This particular bag has been torn neatly from gullet to gusset to allow the head of a live chicken to peek out and get some air. The chicken looks unfazed, her white neck feathers splayed around the opening that’s been made for her comfort; her rubbery comb, red as a fire engine, fans above her beak as she seems to watch the passers-by.

“What strikes me about this scene is what it says about how people choose to interact with the two different food systems in their cities,” says Battersby.

“This is a woman who is clearly using the supermarket sector for some of her grocery shopping. But she still prefers to buy a live chicken, which is a significant financial outlay, over a chicken from Shoprite that’s already dead, and has been plucked and refrigerated.”

Earlier in the book, we spoke about the four pillars that most people use to define the notion of ‘food security’: food should be available, accessible, usable, and there should be a reliable and stable supply of it. But we threw in a fifth possible pillar, that of ‘agency’: when a person has some level of control over her life, when she has the ability to make her own choices over her budget and the food she buys and uses, this also determines if she’s food secure or not.

The story of the live chicken in the amaCheckers says something about the choices this woman is making in terms of how she uses the different food systems around her.

“Many people around Africa prefer what they might call ‘traditional’ chicken. We saw chicken referred to like this on some of the restaurant menus in the university canteens we visited in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance,” says Battersby. “They’re also called ‘roadrunners’ or ‘marathon chickens’. They tend to be a bit leaner and tougher, and many people say they prefer them to the overly soft chickens that are bred for supermarkets.”

The woman who’s carrying her roadrunner home in the amaCheckers may still have to do the grim work of slaughtering, plucking, and cleaning the bird. And she may well have paid more for it than if she’d bought the prepared meat in the nearby shop. But she’ll get around the problems of having to store the perishable meat at home. She’ll get to use the whole chicken – intestines, gizzard, head, feet, carcass – and she’ll get a taste and texture from the meat that she’s more familiar with.

“For me, this story says so much about how a woman like this is choosing. It says something about the local and the global dynamics of the food system at work here in the city. It talks about the interplay between the formal and informal food systems. It speaks to the way that people make choices in the food system. And it reminds me of why our cities benefit from having a diverse food system.”

CHAPTERS: 1234567