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A healthy meal in every neighbourhood

- Brittany Kesselman

Few Johannesburg residents enjoy the right to food and even fewer are aware that they have such a right. Community Food Centres could help change that.

The right to food is enshrined in Section 27 of the South African Constitution. Despite this, almost 15 million South Africans experience hunger and just over 16 million more are at risk, according to a study published in 2013. 

Like many developing countries, South Africa is experiencing a ‘double burden’ of disease. Hunger and under-nutrition co-exist with obesity and diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. 

Systemic insecurity in the city 

In Johannesburg, estimates of food insecurity range from 27% citywide to up to 90% in the poorest wards. This is not due to a shortage of food – there is more than enough for everyone. Rather, it is the result of South Africa’s unjust food system. 

Food justice is a concept that recognises the structural racism and economic injustice in the food system, and strives for greater equity and fairness. Food justice is about placing more control over food-related decisions in the hands of farm workers, food sector workers and marginalised communities. It goes well beyond the technical questions of food security and considers power relations in the food system. 

To date, food-related interventions in Johannesburg have tended to focus on either charitable food distribution (soup kitchens and food parcels) or support for urban agriculture (market-oriented or subsistence). While these may help some individuals, neither addresses the underlying structural issues that contribute to hunger and malnutrition – issues such as  the concentration of the capitalist food system, the gendered distribution of household labour, or the impact of colonisation and apartheid on dietary preferences and practices. Without addressing these underlying issues, food-related interventions have limited impact and cannot make a long-term contribution to food justice.

Restaurante Popular in Brazil. © Lianne Milton  | 

People’s restaurants in Brazil, community centres in Canada 

There are examples from other parts of the world of policies and projects that have contributed towards a more just food system. In the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, the food and nutrition security programme explicitly acknowledges the right to food and has made significant strides against hunger over the past 20 years. 

One innovation is the people’s restaurant (restaurant popular), which serves inexpensive healthy meals to thousands of people each day. These people’s restaurants are open to all, with meals designed by nutritionists. Meals are subsidised to varying degrees and free for people living on the streets. 

Combined with the other interventions of the municipal and federal government – such as the family grant (Bolsa Familia) and support for urban agriculture and peri-urban small farmers, subsidised fresh produce markets, the municipal food procurement programme, the school nutrition programme – the people’s restaurant has reduced food insecurity and improved nutrition. 

In Canada, the Community Food Centre (CFC) model, first developed at ‘The Stop’ in Toronto, uses food as an entry point to address poverty and hunger at the community and national level. The CFC is a non-governmental organisation, which provides emergency food assistance (through a food bank and drop-in meals) alongside educational, capacity-building and civic engagement programmes. The CFC is explicitly committed to social justice, which influences the form and content of all its programmes, educational and advocacy work. 

A community food centre in every Johannesburg neighbourhood 

Based on research on food production and consumption in Johannesburg, I believe community food centres could be a key component of solving the city’s food challenges.

CFCs would enable people to access affordable, healthy meals; learn food production and preparation skills; and mobilise for food system change. A CFC has the potential to: 

  • improve access to healthy food, thereby combating hunger and malnutrition,
  • develop skills, in terms of food production (urban farming), preparation (healthy cooking), preservation and processing,
  • increase awareness of the right to food, food system injustices and food sovereignty alternatives, which leads to mobilisation on food issues,
  • provide a market for urban farmers, enabling them to improve incomes through stable sales of a more diverse range of produce,
  • generate new knowledge on the food system to underpin educational and advocacy activities, and
  • help build community, through joint activities in a community-oriented space. 

Ideally, there would be a CFC in every neighbourhood of Johannesburg, serving meals to the local community, buying produce from local farmers and helping to educate people around food system issues.