Food for thought

Leaf mustard, spinach, white beans, spring onions, cabbage, strawberries and garlic ... Wilton Xaba’s small garden—about 4m by 3m—in front of his house in Tembisa is jam-packed with lush vegetable beds and “container gardens” made of old tyres.

“I can’t remember the last time I went to the supermarket to buy vegetables,” says Xaba, who produces more than enough fresh vegetables to feed his family of four, despite losing an arm in a car accident when he was 17.

Food prices have risen, according to one estimate, by at least 15,7 % from April 2007 to April this year. In this period, the price of white bread increased by 26,37%, and that of a 5kg bag of maize meal by 5,23%. On average, the price of dairy products increased by 24,65% and the price of vegetables rose by 32,85%.

Food inflation has become, understandably, a political hot potato.

Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool called on May 13 this year for a “mighty partnership against hunger” and said the government and society could not close their eyes to the struggle of families to put food on the table.

He called for a food-security campaign summit and said the government would bring a set of “concrete initiatives” to the table. On June 18, the summit took place in Bellville, Cape Town.

Jeremy Michaels, Rasool’s head of communications, told the Mail & Guardian Online in July: “The urgency of relief for the poorest of the poor is a matter which we and government have agreed with civil society, labour and business cannot be delayed. This week’s increase in the price of petrol drives home the urgency of this issue.

“At the food summit, government, civil society, labour and business united around a set of measures which we think will be able to bring relief to the most vulnerable of our people in the short term.”

The summit agreed on the creation of a comprehensive programme whereby the government will make arable land available for the creation of food gardens. School grounds could also be used for this purpose.

A second plan hatched at the summit was to “down-manage food wastage”, which means that food from supermarkets will be recalled before its expiry date to prevent fresh food from being dumped by retailers upon its sell-by date.

The summit also agreed to increase the provision of free water and electricity especially to poor communities across South Africa, as well as to curb housing evictions, as these are directly linked to poverty.

Furthermore, the school feeding programme should be extended to cover all schools in poverty-stricken areas, including high schools, as some high-school learners drop out of school due to hunger.

Starter packs
Meanwhile, the national government has its own plans to get South Africans growing their own veggies.

During the 2007/08 financial year, 53 248 people received government-issued agricultural starter packs; in 2008/09, 70 000 individuals are targeted to receive these packs. The almost 20 000 extra packs will be distributed among the most vulnerable communities.

Priscilla Tsotso Sehoole, chief of communications of the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs, said: “At this moment the nine provinces in South Africa provide different starter packs. We are now going to supply standardised starter packs funded by the national government.”

What these new, standardised packs will contain has not been finalised yet. There will be some basic equipment, fertiliser and seeds, but the type of starter pack will depend on the area where it is issued. Currently, a starter pack in Johannesburg comprises a spade, a rake, two bags of compost, six packages of seeds, a hosepipe and a net.

Hilda Petho, head of the Food Gardens Foundation—an NGO in Johannesburg that trains communities and individuals to grow their own vegetables—says she has already noticed a growing interest in private gardening. The foundation’s membership is up by 45% from last year.

“Because of the high food prices, people want to grow their own vegetables now. It’s not just poor people any more,” she says. Working people are also joining the foundation and calling for information.

According to Petho, the situation is urgent. “I have people who call me, who just started their own garden, and tell me how desperately they wait for the vegetables to grow, because they so desperately need it.”

She thinks it’s good to encourage South Africans to grow their own vegetables, but doubts if the government’s starter-pack campaign will be effective. She says it’s not enough only to provide these packs, as training is essential. Also, the packs are often abused. “People sell them and buy alcohol [with the money].”

Petho feels that changing people’s mindset about growing their own food is not easy.

“Most of us have grown up with the idea of getting food and vegetables in the shop at the corner. We took it for granted that the farmers grow and we can go to the shop. You’re dealing with a mindset that agriculture is not ‘high society’, working with soil is not [for the] affluent ... For young people, agriculture is not cool.”

Education is key to solving these problems, she says.

“A long time ago at schools in South Africa, you were sent to the garden when you were late or naughty. So children associate the garden with punishment. That’s why we now go to schools and say, ‘Food gardening is fun.’”

Fresh from the garden
For Xaba, gardening is fun. Walking in his garden in Tembisa, he enthusiastically shows how one can easily grow one’s own vegetables, even in a small place.

He uses “container gardens”—three stapled and stacked tyres turned into a vegetable bed as deep as one dug in the soil.

He places three empty bottles at the bottom of each container garden so the soil can breathe. On top of the bottles comes a layer of soil as well as some small pieces of wood to drain the water. Then he adds organic material from the bin: newspapers, egg boxes, mandarin peels and yesterday’s pap.

Some lumps of coal are added—to prevent diseases—and one basket of water. “The soil will absorb it for quite a long time, so you don’t need to water it every day.”

Finally he adds another layer of sand, in which to plant the seeds. He also adds dry grass and mulch so that the soil will not get heated and dried out by the sun.

According to Xaba, gardening is not very difficult and time consuming. “But,” he adds, “knowledge is very important. It’s not enough to give people a pack of seeds. You need to train people how to do it. For example, you cannot grow potatoes and spinach in the same vegetable bed, because the potatoes will eat all the nutrition. And if you don’t put mulch on the soil, you will need to water your garden a lot.”

Xaba only waters his garden once a week, mostly on Saturdays when he tends to his garden—something he really enjoys. “I appreciate nature and realise I am part of it.”

And, he says, it saves him a lot of money and his produce is much healthier than what he can buy in a shop. “Spinach costs about R6 in the shop now and a small cabbage about R10. And it’s lying there for a long time. From your garden it’s fresh and full of nutrition.”

Dr Wimpie Nell, professor at the department of agriculture at the University of Free State, has worked on a community gardening project in a Mangaung township to train residents to grow their own vegetables, and has written two books on the subject.

He says he is very much in favour of private gardening for people’s own consumption. “I am doing it myself as well. In an old tyre I grow my own spinach and once a week I can feed my whole family from it.”

But, he believes it will not be easy to encourage people to grow their own vegetables. “The big problem is, some of us like working in the garden, some of us like working with computers. Those who already have some feeling for gardening will make a success out of it. But if you don’t like gardening, you will never start doing it.”

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