Anna Trapido: Lockdown charity projects and the future of South African food

By , 6 April 2020

Street vendors selling produce. Source: IOL.co.za.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many food producers at all levels of the food system have been deeply damaged by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Eating out is an innately sociable activity so even before lockdown and mandatory closure, essential social distancing had reduced the raison d’être for many restaurants. Fine dining establishments were further hit by a dramatic decline in international tourist numbers. Street food traders were initially banned and then unbanned but along with smaller inner-city food stores and township spaza shops there was such confusion amongst law enforcement authorities that many were forced to close even when they met the criteria for essential services. The small farmers and fishers who supply all the above businesses not only saw orders dry up but many were also subject to harassment from confused law enforcement professionals when they tried to tend their crops and livestock.  All this at a time when business in general and hospitality businesses in particular were already struggling in an ailing economy within an industry that, even in the best of times, runs on very thin margins. There have been significant job and income losses already. And this is just the beginning…

Last week Chef Luke Dale Roberts sent a text message to past guests of his restaurants The Test Kitchen, The Shortmarket Club, Commissary, Salsify at The Roundhouse, and The Pot Luck Club Restaurants which mentioned retrenchments and requested donations for his staff.  See also open letter as featured on the website for all the group’s restaurants. Eat Out have also mobilized their audience to help to safeguard businesses and the salaries of restaurant staff, using the crowdfunding platforms GoFundMe and BackaBuddy – for more information, go to Beyond Lockdown.

The crisis has hit Franschhoek – where restaurants and tourists are the town’s lifeblood – extremely hard. With the schools closed, Chef Margot Janse’s pre-existing school feeding scheme Isabelo has been paused and the resources and skills therein have been channeled into the newly formed Disaster Management Franschhoek. As part of this initiative a group of Franschhoek chefs are working from Chef Chris Erasmus’s kitchen at Foliage restaurant to cook meals for weekly food packs sent out to 500 needy Franschhoek families.    

In Johannesburg NOSH Food Rescue have been attempting to reduce food insecurity by redistributing prepared and perishable surplus food since 2015. As of 6 April they joined forces with the team at Thava Indian Restaurant in Norwood for the Cooking With Compassion project. What was the restaurant space has been registered as essential service site and nine chefs are cooking up a “plat du jour” from the NOSH-sourced supplies. NOSH will then distribute the meals to needy families in Alexandra township. NOSH CEO Hanneke van Linge says: “we generally collect from supermarkets but we are also being approached by an increasing number of small-scale farmers who suddenly have no customers for their produce and while we will gladly accept their generosity in order not to let food go to waste, we’d also like to raise money to at least make a donation to cover their costs.”  To help, click here.

In an attempt to assist food businesses that are currently trading, design firm Studio-H have compiled and are continually updating a nationwide list of independent food businesses operating during lockdown. They are also hosting live podcasts every Monday at 16h30 to support women in the food industry through the current COVID-19 crisis.

In suburban areas small food businesses have mostly had their status as essential services recognized and respected during lockdown but elsewhere there have been problems. A report by University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) sets out the ways in which the implementation of lockdown regulations is preventing spaza shops and small farmers from effectively operating. Government has shown willingness to modify and clarify regulations but the reality on ground is that (even when the small farmers, fishers and vendors are within their rights to work and trade) they face widespread confusion, inconsistency and harassment on the part of law enforcement authorities.

This has caused lockdown food provision to be concentrated around a few corporate controlled supply chains dominated by a handful of vertically integrated agribusinesses and supermarkets which has already had an immediate impact on what poorer South Africans are buying and eating. Evidence from the first week of lockdown set out in a report by Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group suggests a dramatic decline in consumption of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. Food buying patterns have changed with consumers opting to purchase only staple carbohydrates and non-perishables sourced from a single supermarket rather than shopping around for the best deal at a range of smaller township traders. While the supply chains of big agriculture into supermarkets are being respected as essential within the application of lockdown regulations, the grower pushing a wheel barrow of spinach from a Tembisa food garden to a spaza shop and the man selling fish caught by West Coast communities from the back of a bakkie on the Cape Flats are being thwarted in their attempts to supply nutritious, affordable food to needy people.

Clearly farmers and vendors cannot trade as before. There is a need to de-concentrate the food system spatially but this does not have to prevent informal street traders from buying and selling produce safely. The PLAAS report suggests that: “Since traditional selling areas like taxi ranks and bus and railway stations now lie still, new sites can be quickly set up using existing public infrastructure. School premises that have been closed offer shelter and water and sufficient space for social distancing to be safely practiced. Government should immediately make such spaces available for food vendors to trade from.”

The tragic truth is that the pandemic is already resulting in a massive contraction in our economy. Much of this contraction is unavoidable if we are to save lives but the destruction of township food systems and small farming businesses is not inevitable. In our current crisis, the ideal situation would be one that allows goods to circulate at a local level throughout this crisis in order to ensure that the poor have sufficient access to food during the lockdown and that small producers are able to continue to sell in a secure manner.

NPO African Spirit provides an example of how a community can create just such a win-win lockdown solution. Shiyabazali is an informal settlement above Howick Falls in KZN. The community is very vulnerable, with many relying on casual daily labour for income. Lockdown has made an already dire situation even worse. African Spirit, have established a sponsorship scheme whereby affluent Howick Falls residents donate money for vegetable boxes supplied and delivered to Shiyabazali families by local grocer, Touchwood Veggies. Touchwood source their produce from small local farmers. This initiative is not only assisting small businesses to keep going during the lockdown but also providing vulnerable people with good quality, fresh, nutritious food. The fact that minimal carbon miles are generated is the cherry on the top. African Spirit have no website but can be contacted telephonically: Judy Smit on 072 147 5106 or Tshidiso Masopha on 078 828 9380 or via their Facebook page @africanspirithowick.

 In the Western Cape, Food Flow are involved in a similar scheme whereby donations are used to commission small farmers who have recently lost restaurant orders to provide fresh food to families in communities whose children normally rely on school feeding schemes. 

In the midst of so much suffering and confusion it can seem as if there will be no tomorrow but we have to believe that there will be. Farming is by its very nature an investment in the future. There are ways in which the financially fortunate can contribute to shaping the recovery and maximizing the kind of virtuous circular economics described above. Abelimi bezekhaya have been supporting small scale urban farmers in the Western Cape for more than 30 years. In response to the COVID-19 crisis and in anticipation of hunger to come they are organizing planting-season manure runs which will take place daily for the next six weeks. Just R100 is enough to sponsor manure and seeds for one farmer to plant or re-plant 100m2 of garden area. R5000 will cover the full cost of one manure run which will reach 50 micro-farmers per day.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When COVID-19 makes so many lives seriously shit, buying a bakkie load of manure seems like an appropriate investment in the future.

If you know of any other worthy initiatives to combat the direct and indirect effects of Coronavirus in the South African wine and food sectors, please contact us and we will update this article accordingly. All information to: info@winemag.co.za

Addendum:
Yebofresh.co.za aims to make “quality food more easily accessible to South Africa’s townships” and is currently operating in the Western Cape. Food parcels can be ordered here.

Massimo’s restaurant in Hout Bay is keeping the kitchen open to prepare meals for the needy in their community. To make a donation, click here.

Stellenbosch Unite is is a collaborative aid action purposed to provide social support to vulnerable community members with food security during the COVID-19 pandemic. To donate or volunteer, click here.

Food Flow is an effort to shift the food flow that would have gone to restaurants to communities facing food insecurity. To sponsor a bag, click here.

Lunchbox Fund has a COVID-19 Relief Feeding Program. R400/$20 provides a box of provisions sufficient to feed a family of four for 31 days. Cape Wine Auction Trust funding already means that almost 15000 people will be fed for the next month.

Save Your Local is an online platform which allows small businesses (for example restaurants and hotels) to sell vouchers for redemption after lockdown restrictions have been lifted.

The HeadStart Trust has been involved in the upliftment of poor and marganilised communities for over 10 years, activities now centred around Napier in the Overberg, where the Bruce Jack family farm The Drift is located. Because of Coronavirus and the resulting lockdown, the short-term focus is on food relief. To make a donation, click here.

The PHA Campaign (Philippi Horticultural Campaign) and Vegkop Farm have a target of feeding 2250 local families – R500 gives one family 25kg of food for a week. To make a donation, click here.

The Jordan Wine Estate Restaurant Support Initiative allows you the opportunity to support your favourite local restaurant. By purchasing a voucher of R600, you will receive a future-dated restaurant voucher worth the same value. With this purchase you will also receive a selected case of six bottles of Jordan wine, delivered to your door for free, as soon as possible.

Chefs with Compassion is a collaboration between SA Chefs Association, Nosh Food Rescue, Slow Food International, Chefs Alliance SA and Strategic PR – the core philosophy being to utilise surplus fresh produce that would otherwise become food waste to feed the most vulnerable. Needs fall into three categories and include: 1. Cash: Every R10 donated translates to one meal per person in need; 2. Surplus food and 3. Direct expenses: Cooking equipment and materials, fuel and airtime. To dontate, call 083 271 6000 or email chefswithcompassion@gmail.com

About the author: Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.

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