It is a cool Saturday morning in Soweto. The streets are quiet but there is already a buzz of activity at the Funda Ujabule Primary School. Bunches of bright green vegetables are stacked on market tables, there are chickens and rabbits in cages, tables are packed with little bags of heritage seeds and multicoloured corn. The wet earth, after the first spring rain, helps chefs to ease the pens of their gazebos into the ground between the traders while the wind plays with their sail covers. Chef schools are setting up camp to compete in a food challenge, but unlike most competitions, they won’t be replicating Michelin restaurant style food. The schools are competing to produce the best and healthiest skaftini (lunchbox).
Chef schools from all over Gauteng gathered as part of the Soweto Eat In 2017, hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s iZindaba Zokudla project and Slow Food to raise awareness of poor child nutrition in South Africa and the challenges of the food system.
“iZindaba Zokudla aims in all its activities to build linkages between social actors who would not normally meet,” says dr. Naudé Malan, convener of iZindaba Zokudla. Bringing chefs, urban small farmers and academics together, the project certainly succeeded and the day did not just produce good food, but also much food for thought.
The Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card 2016 (HAKSA), released by Discovery Vitality in June this year, suggests that there is more than enough reason to raise awareness. One in four preschoolers is overweight, whilst one in five is stunted. But most disconcerting is the fact that 74% of children in rural areas are underweight.
Gerald Bourke, The World Food Programme’s communications officer for Southern Africa, believes that one of the greatest contributors to poor nutrition is “the lack of variety”. “There is insufficient attention given to the range of ingredients that we eat. That is why education and exposure at a young age is so important.”
Dietician and co-author of Eat Ting, Mpho Tshukudu, agrees with Bourke. “We eat meat daily, and mostly of a poor quality. Most meal times don’t include vegetables and we eat big starch portions that are high in GI.” Replacing traditional foods like tomato gravies with industrial packet soups and prepared products, is another contributor to poor nutrition, says Tshukudu who also gave the nutritional guidelines for the chef’s skaftini challenge. And as a judge she was definitely looking for variety in the lunchboxes.
The consequences of poor nutrition, explained in The World Food Programme’s Share the Meal campaign, includes diminished learning and school performance, lower future earnings and a high risk of dying from infectious disease. The HAKSA 2016 report confirms the impact on academic performance as more than half of the primary school children tested below average in their motor control skills, which is linked to academic performance.
“Poverty is malnutrition: not just the pangs of hunger when food is short in the home – although poverty is hunger too – but the long-term, endemic condition caused by poor inadequate diet. Malnutrition hits children hardest,” writes Colin Bundy in Poverty in South Africa: Past and Present.
In light of Bundy’s comment the HAKSA 2016 findings should be less surprising as the latest Poverty Trends in South Africa statistics (released by Stats SA in August) shows that poverty is on the rise. “More than half of South Africans were poor in 2015, with the poverty headcount increasing to 55.5%, from a series low of 53.2% in 2011.” This means that 30.3 million South Africans were living in poverty in 2015.
Although several studies found healthy food to be more expensive than unhealthy food, Tshukudu believes it is not always the case. “Eat local and seasonal and see beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and dairy as protein and don’t eat meat daily,” is her advice.
In the skaftini challenge chefs had a budget of R20 for a healthy lunchbox including a drink. “We thought the budget might be tight, but we were surprised what we could do with it,” said Rudolph van Wyk, National Head of Academics at the Chefs Training & Innovation Academy. Mark Coombe, Campus Principal for Capsicum Culinary Studio in Pretoria agrees that it is not all about price. “How you cook it is also what makes it healthy.”
Addressing one of the conferences at the Soweto Eat In 2017, prof. Vishwas Satgar, from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Department of International Relations, the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Center (COPAC) and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign suggested that food sovereignty is the answer to South Africa’s nutrition crisis. Blaming the industrial food system for unsustainable practices that produce unhealthy food, Satgar suggests that food production should be returned to the communities. “My students’ research show that even here in Soweto there are pockets of community food production. Let’s scale it up.” Advocating active citizenry, Satgar believes that the solutions can come from grassroots.
Highlighting water inequality, poor land reform and power over seed supply as crucial issues in need of addressing, Satgar suggests that an alternative food system will place the citizen and the farmer at the centre. “It is not all bad news, we have alternatives. We just need to shift away from the current industrial food system.”
The alternative food system that Satgar promotes is packed out on tables outside the conference room, manned by small scale urban farmers, making a living producing “good, clean and fair” produce as Slow Food promotes.
Satgar recently made headlines for advocating a complete ban on the advertising of fast foods. Although very controversial, it might address the HAKSA 2016 report’s concern that there are 30 million fast food consumers in South Africa. “Up 10 million in the last five years”. It is for this reason that Maria Dixon, Head of Training at Prue Leith Chefs Academy believes chefs have a greater responsibility than before to consider their customer’s nutrition. “More and more meals are eaten outside of the home and that gives chefs a greater reason to not only consider the pleasure that their food brings, but also its impact on their customers.”
Satgar, Bourke and Tshukudu also share the view that healthy futures lie in indigenous foods. Chad Humby, Head of Department: Culinary Arts at The Swiss Hotel School, agrees and believes that chefs have a great role to play: “We need to go back to basics. We need to go back to ingredients that were used in tough times. It is important that young chefs understand and return to ‘oukos’ (heritage cuisine)”.
The winning skaftini was dished up by Prue Leith Chefs Academy. It included a sorghum (indigenous grain) tabbouleh with a skewer of beef mince and lentil meatballs and an amasi curd and herb dip. Snacks were dried pear and coconut truffles and an oat and date crunchy and if you returned the glass bottle in which homemade rooibos and orange ice tea was served, you were literally rewarded in brownie points for recycling – a sugar and flourless chocolate and hazelnut brownie…