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. (

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.


Community of Gardens

As a third year volunteer, I have a bit more freedom in my projects than I did the first two years, and I’m planning on taking advantage of that. I’m using this freedom to address a wide-spread food insecurity problem in my village. Few families have home gardens that produce year-round, even though the growing season extends throughout the year. So I’ve put together a plan to address that in about 5 of the villages near where I live, which I’ve termed the “Community of Gardens” project.

I’ll be working with (potentially) 3 primary schools, 2 secondary schools, the Xitsavi youth centre, and 2 clinics to establish community gardens at those places and encourage home garden creation. Beyond that, we’ll be doing workshops on nutrition, particularly nutrition for malnourished children and HIV+ individuals, which are two of the populations that are most at risk when there is food insecurity. I’m putting together a proposal for a VAST grant for the equipment and materials needed for the project. Let me tell you, VAST grants are a little crazy to apply for!

In the appication process, I also have to meet with each location at least once to propose the project idea, identify the needs of the organization, and gauged whether they want to be involved. This has consumed much of the last two weeks. I’ve been to 4 of the schools at least once, and hopefully go to the remaining school and the clinics tomorrow. I literally live next door to two of the locations, which is frustrating because it’s so close, but I can’t just walk it. I have to find a counterpart to go with me and go through the proper channels.

It can be a little maddening for a take-charge American. Of course, I’ve had two years of practice, which helps.

We went to the tribal office today to meet with the Indunas of the villages I’ll be working in. Indunas are a little like a city council member….that’s the best analogy I can find. As luck would have it, none of the Indunas were there and the weekly meeting of all 32 Indunas was delayed by a few hours, so we left without meeting anyone. On the plus side, I got two package slips, so I’m hoping to knock off work early today to swing by the post office.

The deadline to apply is next week, and one way or another, I’ll get this all done. Though I’ve written one other grant before, this one has been a lot more work. I will say I felt super-special-important writing out the grant objectives and indicators specifically for my project-it felt so official. 🙂 The budget part is making me want to pull my hair out, as is calculating the number. Just to confuse you a bit, I have to know how many adults, teenagers, and children are direct beneficiaries of the project (divided into gender groups), then magically calculate the indirect beneficiaries (again, divided into gender and age groups). Among those, I need to identify random characterists, like whether someone is a “service provider” or lactating/pregnant. Oy.

And then there’s a few odd problems with the excel-style application. One problem which had me nearly beating my head against the cement wall was the date. It said to enter it as MM/DD/YY, but in reality it was apparently YY/MM/DD, but showed up as DD/MM/YY. Seriously, almost too much confusion for my brain to figure out.

But, despite the grant writing procedure, I’m super excited to start with this project, which will run from about now through July, so nearly the duration of my service. And to the best of my calculating abilities, over 1000 children will be direct/indirectly impacted. That’s not even counting the teenagers and adults!

The Crazy Third Year Volunteer Life

By the nature of the education sector in South Africa, my first two years of service were pretty structured. I went to school five days a week, from 7:30-2:30, roughly. What I did at school was sometimes far from structured, but I was there. I had a schedule, and rarely was a not around during the workweek.

For my third year of service, I switched from the schools to working with an organization that promotes rural development. I wasn’t really aware how much things would change in the structure of my service. I didn’t realize that I was getting myself into a whole new service dynamic.

The structure schedule I have been working under for the past two years has been entirely thrown out of the window. I still haven’t had a normal workweek. Usually, I spend M/W/F at the Trust, and T/Th at the food security project. But this week alone, I spent Tuesday in town working on getting an invoice to purchase materials for a seedling nursery at the food security project. Then today, Friday, I spent the morning having a meeting at a nearby primary school to discuss the creation of a garden there. And on Wednesday, though I was at the Trust, the day was insane because we handed our food parcels to 90+ of our OVCs.

I’ve tried crafting a schedule, but things haven’t settled into a normal. I suppose this is my new normal. I’m in a quasi-supervisory position at the Food Security Project, so my responsibilities are a bit different than a normal volunteers. Plus, I’m starting for form partnerships with area schools to help develop gardening schemes there, which will mess up my non-existent schedule even more. At any rate, it all keeps me on my toes!

I’m still in the process of getting my programmes up and running, but I’m seeing some positive trends, even if my life happens to be a bit chaotic. The meeting at the primary school went remarkably well, and I’m excited to work with another PCV to establish a school garden there!