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With food banks, South Africa enters war on hunger

By Firdose Moonda

South Africa's government is stepping up efforts to boost family farms as part of the war on hunger.

South Africa’s government is stepping up efforts to boost family farms as part of the war on hunger.

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa produces enough food to ensure every one of its 51 million people eat 600 grams of starch, 300 grams of fruit and vegetables and 150 grams of meat or fish a day. But despite this, almost 11 million South Africans do not know where their next meal will come from.

Food shortages and hunger affect nearly 22 percent of the South African population, mainly due to difficulties in accessing food that has already been processed and readied for consumption. But Africa’s largest economy has a new plan to curb hunger. A government-backed initiative has been introduced to help small farmers. Still, it is likely that the government and food banks will continue to face logistical hurdles in transporting and distributing food while the plan finds its footing.

On World Food Day, which was held this week, the Fetsa Tlala (“End Hunger”) program was unveiled. The project consists of a ten-year initiative designed to provide funding to low-income citizens who are trying to grow their own crops. The hope is that these funds will boost the supply of basic foods in poor areas, many of which lack not only the resources to distribute food, but also the ability to produce it sustainably.

South Africa has a well-developed commercial farming sector and exports significant amounts of its produce. Over eight million tons of maize, the same amount consumed within the country, is also shipped abroad, as is more than half of South Africa’s produced sugar. A large portion of the country’s harvested fruits and vegetables, too, are also sold overseas. But in all cases, it is often the better quality products that are shipped overseas, leaving South Africans with those of inferior quality.

Currently, small-scale farming does not have broad support in South Africa. Only three percent of the government’s Land and Agricultural Development Bank reserves -established in 1912 to boost agricultural production through funding- goes to small-scale subsistence farming. But these small farms have in recent years amassed 200,000 hectares of land in seven of the country’s nine provinces, and hope to soon begin cultivation.

South Africa’s government plans to assist farmers with harvesting by helping oversee the growth of small and medium-sized farm businesses that will sell extra crop yields to the country’s National Defence Force, as well as to schools and prisons. Government policymakers hope this will have a twofold benefit of “unlocking” local economies and feeding people. Tina Joemat-Pettersson, South Africa’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that officials are looking to implement this program on one million hectares of farmland over the next five years.

FoodBank South Africa, a member of the nonprofit Global FoodBanking Network, launched a similar pilot program with small farms in the northern province of Limpopo. In FoodBank’s program, harvested produce is purchased by donors whose financial support is reinvested in the farming community.

While these initiatives appear to promise long-term benefits, they still do not meet the immediate needs of South Africans who suffer from food shortages daily. But some have proposed using a Robin Hood-style method of sourcing food for the poor, by taking discarded food from wealthier South Africans and turning it into suitable meals for the needy.

Barry Mey of Stop Hunger Now Southern Africa called the amount of disposed food that is perfectly good an “obscene practice,” made worse by its frequency. “Things like garnishing on restaurant food platters should be stopped immediately,” he said.

FoodBank South Africa, too, has begun to collect much of its inventory from retail grocery stores and fresh produce companies when the foods approach their “best by” date. Although most of these food items have passed their “sell by” date, they remain fit for consumption. FoodBank covers the cost of packaging and shipping the food to needy areas, most in urban areas and informal settlements, but the food itself is given to the bank for free.

There are urban and rural areas alike in South Africa that have been stricken by hunger epidemics. “Between 2001 and 2011 Gauteng’s population grew by 1.2 million people,” Mey said. “We have 300 informal settlements in Johannesburg and its East Rand alone. Rurally, especially in the Northern and Eastern Cape, hunger poses major challenges where the unemployment is very high. We have a growing trend of polarization between the haves and have-nots.”

South Africa consistently ranks among countries with the highest income gaps, and was listed by Global Finance Magazine as being among the countries where ten percent of the population controls the majority of the nation’s wealth. But as far as food is concerned, South Africa has the potential to be a place where one man’s trash is another man’s treasure if the principle is carefully approached.

Another part of FoodBank’s agenda has been trying to ensure that distributed food meets quality standards and remains safe for consumption. “There is great emphasis on securing healthy food. However, a bigger challenge is the fact that limited cold storage and freezer facilities means that it is difficult to secure perishable goods,” said Melanie Jackson of FoodBank.

Jackson added that due to the shortage of cold storage in some of the areas they are targeting, the bank puts more emphasis on acquiring nonperishable items, including cereals and canned foods. But there have even been donations of cold room facilities in Cape Town that are enabling FoodBank to diversify what it can supply to people in that region. While the group continues to ensure edible goods do not wind up in  landfills, initiatives to support family farms are taking off, carving a path to ensuring that nearly a fifth of South Africa’s population doesn’t have to go to bed on an empty stomach.

Firdose Moonda is The Atlantic Post’s South Africa correspondent, based in Johannesburg.

Posted on October 18, 2013

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