Food Insecurity and Inequality

Many people have misconceptions about South Africa, thinking it is a developed country without many of the problems the rest of Africa faces-poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food insecurity, corruption, etc….and in some parts of that country, that’s more or less true. You can go to highly developed areas of the country and find every modern convenience, mistaking it for some city in America.

But the reality is that South Africa is plagued by inequality and poverty, leading to widespread food insecurity. It’s estimated that at least 12 million South Africans go to bed hungry each night. In the rural areas, where I’m living, this is pretty evident just looking at the children. Many children show signs of long term malnutrition, through stunting or kwashiorkor. Others show signs of emaciation, indicating short-term or seasonal malnutrition. This affects their development, and impacts their success in school and beyond.

Malnutrition is a problem in South Africa, but it’s often hidden by the modern advances of the First World.

There are a lot of things going on in South Africa that affect food security, and race happens to be one of the factors. During Apartheid, black people were removed from some of the most fertile land in South Africa, freeing it up for white farmers. They were removed to some of the harshest, least productive areas of the country. At the end of Apartheid, much of that farmland was retained by the white farmers. Now, twenty years later, vast inequalities in land ownership exist. 36,000 large-scale farmers control 86 million hectares of land, while 1.4 million black farmers have access to 14 million hectares. (iol.co.za)

Stop and look at that sentence again, and really think about what it means. Out of 100 million hectares of farmland in South Africa, 2.5% of the population of farmers (non-black) control 86% of the land. And 97.5% of the population of farmers (who identify as black) control only 14% of the land.

Imagine how that impacts food insecurity, and which ethnicity is most impacted. Yes, there are white households that are food insecure. But the vast majority of families who face insecurity are either rural black South Africans, or township (think urban slums) black South Africans.

I work in a rural village trying to improve food security through small-scale, intensive food gardening, working with potential young black agriculturists. Many of the children in my village are considered orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and come from food insecure households. Even if their family has frequent access to food, it might be only during certain times of the month/year (i.e. near payday), it might not be enough food, or it might be food that lacks proper nutrients (i.e. pap, or maize porridge). My goal during my third year is to work with both adults and children to teach sustainable home gardening methods that are high-yielding, low-technology, and which use water responsibly. The idea is that if a family knows more efficient ways of growing food, they can contribute to their own household food security by growing healthy vegetables.

Food insecurity has the potential to cripple this nation, and the problem gets worse as food prices rise. Pensioners in SA receive 1,500 rand/month from the government (about 150USD). For each child in the rural areas (for needy families), the parents receive R250 (about $25) to care for the child. Can you imagine raising a child on $25/month?

Many of the kids at my workplace are one of several, and some belong to households of 8-9 people who rely on 1 or 2 child grants and perhaps a pension from the grandparent. This means that many children either go hungry, or only eat pap. Pap fills the stomach but provides little in terms of nutrition.

But this is why I’m here…in hopes that I can many some small change to increase food security.
-Jen

Star Trek and Peace Corps: The Prime Directive

I’ve never really watched Star Trek before, and never really wanted to. However, since I’ve started watching the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper has convinced me to try watching it. I started with the 2009 movie-it was surprisingly good, and I moved from that to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (with Sheldon’s childhood hero-Wesley Crusher). I’ll freely admit it: I’m hooked. It’s not just another “flying around space and fighting with aliens” show. It’s more than that-from an anthropological point, it’s simply fascinating.

Star Trek’s most important rule is the Prime Directive: Whatever Star Fleet does, there must be no interference to the internal development of an alien civilization. No handing out advanced technology, going into schools to teach new theories, or taking control of a government to sort out civil wars or internal conflicts. Star Fleet aids civilizations when necessary and protects them from exterior foes, but they (above all else) will not interfere with a civilization’s laws, beliefs, or development.

I live in South Africa, a country where the modern world and rural Africa collide. Sometimes the transition from First World to Third World is smooth, but more often than not, it causes conflict.  I serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer here, and I live in a rural Xitsonga village which has a rich culture and proudly practices its traditions.

Peace Corps is about sharing our culture and learning from another. Star Fleet did much the same. However, by living and working among people from another culture for two years, it’s inevitable that we start to influence each other. I learn the importance of greetings, and my counterpart sees how greetings have a different role in America.  I eat odd foods and share my own odd foods with my host family. I am able to teach colloquial English phrases to children and they teach me some in their mother tongue. Cultural exchange is at the heart of Peace Corps’ mission, and has a huge impact on the lives of the volunteers and their host communities.

Cultural exchange

Cultural exchange

There are other impacts though, unintended cultural faux-pas that affect my work with the community and their perceptions of me.  Perhaps I remain in my room on the weekend, rather than going out and participating in a village function, and my family becomes concerned for me.  Or else I bring American technology to a rural village and change how records are kept at the school.  It may be more efficient, and wanted, but in the end unsustainable and unhelpful.  Often times, people in the village view me as more intellligent and capable than my supervisors based on my race, which is untrue and causes tension in my organization.

My living in a rural African village would likely go against the Prime Directive, but that’s not to say it’s bad.  I have learned a lot about the people I have spent the last two years among, and I hope they have learned from me.  Yes, I might have instilled potentially unrealistic hopes and dreams among some of my students, but I want them to reach for the stars.  Expectations in the villages are so low, it breaks my heart.  Through living and working in a rural village for two years, some small things start to change in the development of that village.  Star Fleet knew the smallest glimpse at a different life could greatly impact a society’s development, and therefore they would work undercover for years, understanding the culture first.  However, in PC, we are sent to village to aid and sometimes change the development happening there.

Writing grants, getting new technology, and improving the lives of the villagers is the basis for PC’s work in our communities.  Though Star Fleet wouldn’t approve, I have found it to be ultimately rewarding.

There is a darker side that is perhaps unique to Peace Corps South Africa.  I mentioned it before, but here the First and Third World exist alongside each other.  Even in the most remote villages, you’ll find smartphones and nice cars.  There is so much influence from American and European cultures that it has started changing the cultural traditions of villagers.  Music starts to change to reflect American pop influences or styles, and dances begin to incorporate modern moves.  Languages evolves to include words for new technology, either blatantly (Computhere for computer in Setswana) or more ambiguous (sefofane, meaning “the thing that flies above” for plane in Setswana).  Certain things are lost as Western cultures become more pervasive in South Africa.  For the Khoi San, this means there language is nearly obliterated.  How long until other cultures face the same disruption?

Teaching new skills

Teaching new skills

At the end of the day, I obviously believe in the development model of Peace Corps, even if it does against the Prime Directive, in my opinion.  We spend a lot of time learning about the new culture and language(s) we will be living among, and we devote two years to living among our host communities. We don’t fly in without explanation and dump foreign practices on unsuspecting societies-we work alongside the people to determine what they need and what is the most sustainable way to accomplish it. We try our best to help our communities improve themselves.

-Jen

Food Parcels

In the rural areas in South Africa, a common thing to do for food insecure children is provide food parcels. Of course, this is not the best development option, but it is important to make sure children aren’t going hungry at night, and the food parcels help with short term food insecurity.

At Xitsavi, we have identified about 90 OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) who receive food parcels on a regular basis. I was at work last Wednesday when I noticed cans of beans and fish being set out along the lawn, and I knew they were preparing to hand out food parcels. I went over to help sort the food and distribute. To me, the food parcels seemed a little nutty: 12.5kg of mealie meal, 2 cans of fish, 2 cans of beans, tea, oil, 1kg of sugar, 2kg of rice, creamer, 10 soup mix packets, morvite (breakfast porridge), 5 bullion packets, 1 packet of curry powder, and 1 tube of toothpaste. Nothing fresh, very little protein, but it’s food that the children are used to eating and that the adults can easily cook. I probably would have selected a few different things, but overall it was a good food parcels for the kids.

The process ended up taking a few hours. Parents had to come pick up the packages, otherwise the children would try to sell the food on the way home. Plus, that’s a heavy load for a kid to carry. It was fascinating to watch the process. The parents had to sign for the food, then the families would go two by two to collect their parcel. Hardly anyone brought sacks to carry things in, and the centre didn’t have any. So people got pretty creative in how they managed to carry the stuff. Most of the women would carry the 12.5kg (25lb) of maize meal on their heads, which still impresses me, and the kid would load up their backpacks with the both things.

Most of the food is probably already gone, even though it’s only been a week. I did a quick approximation of the amount a person would spend buying all of that stuff at the store, and it came up to about R300. When a family only makes perhaps R1200 or R1500 a month, that makes a big difference in the monthly grocery bill!
-Jen

“The Farm”

Xitsavi Food Security Project

Xitsavi Food Security Project

Today was my first visit to the Xitsavi Food Security Project’s site, where I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next year.  This project is actually the entire reason I am at my new site, and will be the focus of my work as a third year PCV.  A little background on the project:

Hosi Nwamitwa started the Xitsavi Youth Project back in 2009, and small groups of learners started going through the new Fit for Life Fit for Work programme at that time.  FFLFFW is a programme aimed at getting youth (18-30 years old) out of their houses and gaining important life skills, such as sexual and reproductive health, computer literacy, coping skills, and employment skills.  From the FFLFFW programme, the Xitsavi Food Security Project was created to help graduates of the programme gain agricultural skills.  Two years later, the Xitsavi FSP has about 10 hectares of land producing a wide range of vegetables year round, 2 duck and tilapia ponds, a banana orchard, and upwards of 100 moringa trees.  Now, this is a pilot project in polyculture/aquaculture, and I am here to help it move into permaculture.

So to backtrack, today was my first day at “the farm”.  I actually don’t really like calling it a farm, because that brings to mind fields upon fields of heavily fertilized, sprayed, monocrops….which this certainly isn’t.  But for ease of writing, let’s call it the farm.  I was basically just observing today and figuring out what their needs are…and wow, there is a lot I can help with, which is exciting.  They are growing all sorts of delicious things: green beans, okra, tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, mustard spinach, peppers of all colours, beetroot, onion, bananas, moringa….and probably some other things I forgot.  But one of their problems is that they are afraid to plant too much because sometimes finding buyers can be difficult.  So through a series of events, I found myself in town, walking to about 6 different shops and finding out who would be willing to buy our produce.  Three of the shops were very eager to do so, and asked us to bring samples next week so they could assess the quality of our produce.

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Score!  I was exhausted after walking all over the “mountain” that is Tzaneen (my counterpart’s words, not mine), but I felt really good about the prospects for this project in the coming year.  Now to build a nursery…. 😀  After all, we are going to need a LOT of seedlings!

-Jen

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Moringa!!

Moringa!!

What is Hunger?

I will warn you from the start that this post has a good deal of technical language, and wouldn’t necessarily be considered as entertaining as some of my other posts are.  However, because I’ll be talking about the more technical aspects of hunger in the next few posts, I thought it would be nice to lay some groundwork, in case you haven’t studied hunger and food security before.

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I have already indicated that many of the children in my school are hungry and live in food insecure homes.  I’ll come back to what exactly food security is in a bit.  Hunger, as you know, if a feeling people get when they haven’t eaten in awhile.  Pretty simple, right?  Things get a little murkier when you start looking at hunger as it relates to international development. 

What exactly is hunger?

There are a few different types of hunger.  One of them is simply the feeling you get when you haven’t eaten for a few hours.  Everyone has experienced this, and this is NOT what people mean when they talk about hungry children. 

What we mean when we talk about hunger is children who do not get enough food or who do not get enough of the right kinds of food.  Did you know a child can have three full meals everyday, rarely experience the sensation of hunger, yet still be very malnourished?  A child can also be overweight and be malnourished.  How?  Well, malnourishment simply means a condition which is caused by not eating enough healthy foods.  An obese child is every bit as malnourished as an underweight child.

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) is the kind of hunger discussed when aid and relief options are put on the table.  These are the “hungry children” I have mentioned in my blog.  PEM happens when a person is not getting enough protein or calories (energy) from the food they eat.  A person could have three meals a day and feel full, but still suffer from PEM.  This frequently happens when a person is eating primarily empty carbohydrates (rice, pap-stiff maize porridge, potatoes, corn tortillas, etc) without any meat or other protein sources. 

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Kwashiorkor causes hair to lose colour.

One form of PEM is Kwashiorkor, which is a severe protein deficiency.  It frequently happens when a child is weaned from breast milk and given food of inferior quality and nutrition.  Kwashiorkor loosely translates into “what happens to the child when another child is born,” referring to the period when a child is weaned.  In severe cases, children will lose hair color, have thinning hair, develop bloated bellies, and/or have swelling in the legs.  Dozens of kids at my school have wispy, blondish hair, indicating cases of severe Kwashiorkor.

Another form of PEM is marasmus, which is severe emaciation.  When you see pictures of a child who is skin and bones-frighteningly thin, you are looking at a child with marasmus.  Marasmus is a condition where there is severe calorie (energy) deficiency, resulting in rapid fat loss.  Some kids and adults in my village show signs of marasmus.

Both conditions are life-threatening if left untreated. 

Milder (though still danger
ous) cases of malnutrition are manifested by children being at a low height-for-age (stunting), low weight-for-age (underweight), or low weight-for-height (wasted).  If a child is below the 5th percentile for weight or height, they are considered moderately to severely malnourished.  What does this mean?  Percentiles are a way to determine how a child is growing/developing compared to their peers (worldwide, children of their age and gender).  If a child is at the 90th percentile for height, 89% of kids their age and gender are shorter than they are.  If a child is at the 25th percentile for weight, 74% of children their age and gender are heavier than they are. 

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Underweight children watching a gardening demonstration.

If a child is at or below the 5th percentile for either height or weight, it indicates either short-term or long-term malnutrition.  An underweight child (at or below the 5th percentile for weight) could be suffering from seasonal or chronic hunger because weight fluctuates frequently.  Low weight is easier to treat and more likely to be “caught up” at a later stage, if a child is given the proper nutrition.  A wasted child (low weight-for-height) is often a child who has suffered from being underweight for a long period of time, and is now wasted.  It is a more serious condition than being underweight.  A stunted child (at or below the 5th percentile for height) indicates long-term malnutrition, resulting in a child whose growth is stunted.  Stunting can be treated, but stunted children rarely “catch up” later on, even if they are given the proper nutrition.  Furthermore, stunted women frequently give birth to underweight babies, meaning they are already malnourished at birth.

Hidden hunger is another form of malnutrition, different from PEM because the body receives enough of both protein and energy (calories), but is still malnourished.  Hidden hunger is a micronutrient deficiency, and can have severe impacts on health.  Deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients can inhibit the body’s ability to develop or function, causing secondary infection and defects.  Hidden hunger is not visible or even noticeable, and therefore is frequently ignored.  Though it is hard to know without proper testing, signs indicate that many of the children at my school suffer from hidden hunger in one form or another.

All of this relates back to food security.  If a household is food insecure, the children are more likely to be impacted and experience hunger.  But what exactly is food security?

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“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.” (FAO 2005)

For a household to be considered food secure, they must be able to afford, buy, and prepare enough nutritious and healthy food for everyone in the house, during all seasons of the year.  Food security can be transitory, meaning a household can move from being food secure to being food insecure and back throughout the year, based on employment, growing seasons, etc.

What is food insecurity?  It’s the lack of the above criteria.  Also, “food insecurity exists when people are undernourished as a result of the physical unavailability of food, their lack of social or economic access to adequate food and/or inadequate food utilization.”  Furthermore, a person is considered food insecure when their “food intake falls below their minimum calorie (energy) requirements”. (FAO 2005)

Keep posted for information on how all of this technical information relates to my service and the children at my school.
-Jen

Surrounded by Hunger, Part 1

Since I arrived in my village almost two years ago, teachers have told me that many children at my school go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and often have only one meal a day-the meager meal provided by the school nutrition programme. Looking around, I believed that was true for some of the learners, but I couldn’t imagine that most of them didn’t have food at home. Maybe I was in denial-I didn’t want to believe it.

The fact is that I am surrounded by hunger.

No, children aren’t wasting away before my eyes from acute malnutrition. Instead, from birth they are set on a trajectory of chronic malnutrition, evidenced by low weight-for-height (underweight), or low height-for-age (stunting). Their unfocused eyes in the first hours of school, heads dropping towards their desks, and slow, shuffled movements prior to the school serving the lunch at 10am tell me that most do not have breakfast. These kids are hungry.

And some are dying.

In fact, 1 in 15 children die before they reach 5 years of age in South Africa. One third of those children die when they are severely malnourished, and 60% are underweight.

Their death certificates don’t state that they died from malnutrition. No, instead they die from things children should be able to overcome. A 14 year old in a friend’s village died a few weeks ago from a dog bite. Not rabies, just an infection from a dog bite. In a nearby village, a two year old passed away last year from an unspecified illness. A friend of mine told me about a horrible incident at her school, where a first grader accidentally killed a fellow first grader by hitting her in the head with a rock. A last weekend, there was a funeral in my village for a learner from one of my schools. He was “sick for a long time”, which translates into “he had HIV”.

Kids shouldn’t be dying from dog bites, bumps to the head, or preventable and treatable illnesses. This happens when kids are chronically malnourished, suffering from protein-energy deficiency. 2.7 million children in South Africa live in homes where there is child hunger. Overall, 12 million South Africans are considered food insecure, and 4 million of those are on the brink of starvation. These are just a few of the stories….but it’s happening every day.

Earlier this week, I recorded the height and weights of all of our Grade R, or kindergarten, learners. We are in the process of identifying who our Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) are, in order to support them through the school gardens. Finding out the orphans is relatively easy, because the social workers keep track of them and provide a stipend for families who take in an orphan. But the vulnerable children often fall through the cracks. It is up to the school to identify them, and without a standard, it is difficult. I can look at the kids who come to school barefoot, or without coats in the winter, or who wear the same uniform day after day, and I know they are vulnerable. But almost every child in my school is painfully thin-how do I determine who is going hungry? I can’t ask them; they won’t say. So I worked with the principal and decided that we would record their heights and weights and compare them to international standards to determine which children are stunted and which children are underweight.

Out of 39 learners, 18 fall below the 5th percentile in either height or weight. If a learner is at the 5th percentile, it means that 95 percent of children their age in the world are taller or heavier than they are. Nearly half of the class is stunted or underweight. 28 of the learners have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below the 5th percentile. Body Mass Index is a calculation that uses weight and height to determine the amount of fat a person has. Only 1 child has a BMI at the 50th percentile, the rest were below, mostly far below. The 50th BMI percentile mark for a 5 year old girl is 15.1 and for a boy is 15.5.

One of the learners only weighed 11.5kg, or 25.3lb, which is considered underweight for a two year old, and she is 5.

How do we fix this? How do we feed these children? How do we improve this situation?

Stunting has lifelong impacts on a child, even if they receive better nutrition later on in childhood. They rarely catch up with their well-nourished peers. Stunted women often give birth to children with low birth weight, and the cycle begins again. When children have HIV, TB, malaria, or other opportunistic infections, they often do not have the ability to fight the disease, leading to death when it could have been averted. Hidden hunger and parasitic infections exacerbate all of this.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report in 2012, South Africa ranked 107 out of 144 in the world for infant mortality deaths, and 133 out of 144 for life expectancy. In a country that is the economic leader in Africa, a relatively stable economy, and rich in resources, this is a tragedy. In 2011, the GINI coefficient labeled South Africa as the most unequal nation in the world, surpassing Brazil. In a country where wealthy children receive a world class private education and feast on well-rounded, nutrition meals three times a day, rural children are slowly fading away, with empty bellies and immune systems that are unable to cope with the onslaught of physical, psychological, and social maladies. A child raised in poverty in South Africa is four times more likely to die before reaching their fifth birthday than a child raised in a wealthy family.

It is estimated that 30% of children in South Africa are stunted, and 12 million of 52 million people in the country regularly go to bed hungry. In Limpopo, 48% of children were considered stunted in 2005. In 2004, over 800 children died from kwashiorkor, which is an acute form of protein-energy deficiency. Kwashiorkor is commonly seen in places such as war zones, famine relief programmes, and refugee camps. There is no reason it should be seen in a country that has enough food to feed everyone. Kwashiorkor often causes children to have bloated, distended stomachs, and their hair will begin to turn reddish, orange, or gold in severe cases. It is obvious to me that some of the learners I interact with on a daily basis are suffering from kwashiorkor.

What can we do? We can give them seeds and teach them to plant. We can put the power in their hands and help them to ensure their homes are food secure. But I live in the desert. Is it enough?

I’ll write more about ways the government in trying to intervene, and ways in which they should intervene. This country is in a crisis. Food insecurity is a far-reaching problem, which has direct impacts on health and education, and is extremely difficult to overcome. But we must have hope that something can be done.

Otherwise, I’m looking at children who are doomed to be sick and hungry for the rest of their lives, who will raise hungry children, and who will ultimately die prematurely. I am very afraid that this could very well be the reality, unless something changes.
-Jen

http://www.westerncape.gov.za/eng/directories/services/11512/6451
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC201028/
http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/01/30/twelve-million-going-to-bed-hungry-in-sa

Realities of the African Village Life

As my time in the village begins to wrap up, I keep thinking about how I’ve spent the last two years of my life.  I’ve been having lots of surreal moments lately, as I think about how normal my incredibly abnormal life has become.  Problems I considered insurmountable when I arrived have become the main focus of my service.  I remember when I first saw the garden at my school, my only thought was “Well, there’s NO way I am getting a school garden up and running.  Better kiss that dream good-bye.”

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The garden in 2011

Those of you who follow my blog regularly, feel free to laugh along with me!

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The garden in 2013

As you might know, I am more or less the garden teacher, and have been described as the Garden Guru amongst my fellow PCVs.  It just goes to show that huge problems can be tackled, one tiny step at a time.

I would be doing a disservice if I pretended everything was peachy keen and hunky dory in my little village.  In fact, very little outside the school grounds has changed in the past two years. Sometimes I wonder why in the world I decided starting gardens on the edge of the Kalahari Desert was a good idea.   When I step back and consider the almost indescribable poverty and hardship in my village, I start to lose it. 

Simply put, I cannot adequate describe what life in my South African village is like.  It’s too difficult, for many different reasons.  Partly because I’m an American that was raised like a princess compared to how the children in my village grow up.  I can’t verbalize the storm of emotions that rages within me, nor can I eloquently state the realities of this life.  I live in it; it’s too personal and at the same time too foreign.

And since you can’t all come and see for yourself, I asked a friend to write about her experiences working with rural schools in our province, the North West Province.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting a guest post focusing on the realities of life in villages like mine.  Sue is a dear friend of mine, who I met a little over a year ago at a workshop in a nearby school.  She has travelled throughout the country for the past twenty years, teaching permaculture to rural schools like mine.  I wanted you to understand what this life is like from someone who is a South African at heart, and who so intimately understands the struggles and hopes of the people I live among.

Sue will discuss the dire circumstances that schools like mine, who are trying to produce their own food, face in the wake of a changing climate and rising food prices, amongst all the other challenges they face.  Climate change is real, people, and villages like mine are taking the first and hardest blows. I hope you check in tomorrow to read Sue’s message and begin to understand what the kids and people in villages like mine face each day.
-Jen