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Food Insecurity

The Future of Food Insecurity


“It’s been a long day,” thinks Bulelwa Tafeni. It always is. As usual she got up at 5am to get to her cleaning job in the suburbs on time. As usual all she had before she left was a cup of coffee with condensed milk. As usual her elder child took the younger one to the unregistered neighbourhood child care on her way to school. At least both of them get breakfast at school. But today, as she sat in the minibus taxi waiting for it to fill up before it could go, she was hungry. She’d been hungry when she left work and that was a bus and a taxi ride ago. It’ll still take another hour to get home.

It is a week until she gets paid again. On pay day, the first thing she does is go to the supermarket near to where she works and buys bulk non-perishables for the month. The food is cheaper and better quality than the same food near her home, even in the supermarket that has just opened up. She would buy meat and fresh produce too, but she doesn’t have refrigeration, or storage space, and so it would go to waste. She has to pay for a second taxi seat for all the food, but that’s OK. But now, as usual, the food has run out and the money is scarce. She has cut down the range and quality of the food she feeds the family, she has reduced meal sizes. Now is the hungry time.

It will be late by the time she gets home, too late to cook the kinds of healthy, low-cost recipes they tell her to cook when she goes to the clinic to get medication. And anyway, by the time you pay for the electricity or paraffin to cook the food, it isn’t that cheap anymore. And then there’s the water. You don’t even know if it is safe to eat food cooked in that water. As she sits on the taxi she weighs up the options: Some chicken feet and fried dough from the vendors by the taxi rank, or send her elder child to the informal trader for a half loaf of bread and peanut butter to go with sweet tea.

Bulelwa Tafeni is not a real person, but she represents the new face of food insecurity. Although the familiar image of food insecurity is of thin, rural residents, in the wake of rapid urbanization, the urbanization of poverty and a rapidly changing food system, food insecurity is increasingly a problem of urban areas. The African Food Security Network (AFSUN) conducted household surveys in poor areas of eleven cities in nine southern African countries in 2008 and 2009, and found 77 percent of households to be experiencing either moderately or severe food insecurity (according to the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale). These household had low dietary diversity, being largely dependent on diets consisting of cereals, sugars and fats, and experienced regular periods of hunger.

Across the developing world countries are facing the double burden of malnutrition, with high rates of under-nutrition, coupled with high rates of obesity. These are not two separate phenomena: a disease of poverty and a disease of affluence. They co-exist in the same neighbourhoods and even the same households. The epicentre of this phenomenon is the city.

And so, what is our food security future? At present the national policy and global development agendas have not fully recognised the urban challenge. Policies, strategies, projects and programmes still predominantly focus on rural food insecurity and target increasing production for smallholder farmers. These interventions do not speak to the causes of the food insecurity experienced by people like Bulelwa Tafeni.

There are massive opportunities for addressing these new forms of food security. The first step is to recognise that food insecurity does not look the way we have always assumed it does. We need to acknowledge the hidden hunger of the cities, to acknowledge that chronic malnutrition often looks plump, not emaciated, and urban, not rural. From here there are opportunities for futures thinkers working at all scales to step in.

From Bulelwa’s story, we can start to think about what kinds of city-scale interventions there might be that would better connect the poor with places of potential employment. We can start to think of better connecting retail geographies with transport geographies. We can consider what kind of formal and informal food retail mixes are optimum for ensuring access to affordable, nutritious, safe and cultural appropriate foods. We can design low-cost technologies that would help households like Bulelwa’s safely and cost-effectively store and cook foods, which would enable them to eat more healthily, more affordably.

It is perhaps because food insecurity is so multi-faceted that there are so many opportunities for policy makers, development practitioners, private sector stakeholders and others to address it. It will take concerted coordination to connect these multi-disciplinary and multi-scaled responses, but the potential benefits reach well beyond food security alone. At the launch of New York City’s FoodWorks programme, Speak Quinn said, “For years, we’ve been missing a chance to create a greener, healthier, and more economically vibrant city. How? By ignoring the enormous potential of our city’s food system.”

Food insecurity remains one of our greatest development challenges. The potential downstream development benefits of moving towards food security suggest that this is an area that warrants greater attention by futures thinkers and practitioners.

Dr Jane Battersby
Guest Editor


Dr Jane Battersby

Researcher: African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

Read more about the author and her view on being a futurist.


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