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Balsillie School of International Affairs


Food insecurity is a critical, but poorly understood, challenge for the health and development of Capetonians.

Food insecurity is often imagined as hunger, but it is far broader than that. Households are considered food secure when they have “physical and economic access to sufficient and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (WHO/FAO 1996). Health is not merely the absence of disease, but also encompasses good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Individuals in a food insecure household and/or community are at greater risk due to diets of poor nutritional value, which lowers immunity against diseases. In children, food insecurity is known to stunt growth and development and this places the child in a disadvantaged position from early on in life. Any improvement in the nutritional profile of an individual is beneficial and as the family and community become more food secure, the greater the benefit. It further reduces the demand on health services.

In the Cape Town context, food insecurity manifests not just as hunger, but as long term consumption of a limited variety of foods, reduction in meal sizes and choices to eat calorie dense, nutritionally poor foods in an effort to get enough food to get by. Associated with this food insecurity are chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency, particularly among young children, and an increase in obesity, diabetes and other diet related illnesses.

Food insecurity is therefore not about food not being available, it is about households not having the economic or physical resources to access enough of the right kind of food. The latest study of food insecurity in Cape Town found that 75 percent of households in sampled low-income areas were food insecure, with 58 percent falling into the severely food insecurity category.

Food insecurity is caused by household scale characteristics, such as income poverty, but also by wider structural issues, such as the local food retail environment and the price and availability of healthy relative to less healthy foods.

The City of Cape Town therefore commissioned a study based on the following understanding of the food security challenge facing the City.

“Food security or the lack thereof is the outcome of complex and multi-dimensional factors comprising a food system. Therefore, food insecurity is the result of failures or inefficiencies in one or more dimensions of the food system. This necessitates a holistic analysis of the food system that than can provide insights into the various components of the system, especially in our context as a developing world city.”

The call for a food system study sees the City of Cape Town taking the lead nationally, being the first metropolitan area to seek to engage in the food system in a holistic manner and attempting to understand what role the city needs to play in the food system.

The City must work towards a food system that is reliable, sustainable and transparent. Such a system will generate household food security that is less dependent on welfarist responses to the challenge.

In this context, reliability is taken to mean stable and consistent prices, the nutritional quality of available and accessible food, and food safety. Sustainability means that the food system does not degrade the environmental, economic and social environment. Finally, transparency refers to the legibility of the system and its control by the state and citizens.