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Covid-19 and the food industry: ‘I had a wobble last week, I was gatvol’

With the Covid-19 lockdown forcing many people into an unknown future, its impending marginal relaxation from Friday has been met with caution from people working in the food industry. This is despite the losses they have suffered as a result of Covid-19. 

Before the lockdown, Heather Van Harte organised a community market in Cape Town’s bohemian suburb of Observatory. She also catered for lunches for local offices and businesses. The community is a popular commercial hub, with its bars, vintage clothing shops and bookstores usually full of  locals and tourists browsing and buying.

For Van Harte, all that activity has now ground to a halt. 

“My market was still in its infancy. I was trying to build it and make it successful, so that it would run through the winter months. Now, with it being postponed indefinitely, I’m not sure I can attempt to run my market further. I’m just going to have to reassess it when we get out of this,” she said.

Van Harte had initially hoped to provide a delivery service for customers either working from home or confined there during the restrictions, but it turned out that this would not be allowed under the conditions of the level-five lockdown. “I’m stressing. It was my daughter’s 18th birthday recently and all my plans to make an income fell through. Everything has just been so sudden and we’re still processing what’s happened,” Van Harte said. 

As well as making vegan and chicken curries, Van Harte also made tie-dyed T-shirts and aprons. “I’d do pre-ordered curry every Friday and, through that curry business, I started having bigger clients, like the Theatre Arts Admin Collective in Observatory,” she said. She also catered for  Streetopia, an annual year-end street party in Observatory, as well as for the organisation’s monthly volunteer gathering.

Since losing all forms of income, Van Harte has been forced to rely on her partner, who works in the media industry. Although she is enthused by the prospects of returning to a version of her work, she is worried about the effect this may have on supermarket staff, given the numbers of workers in that industry contracting the virus. 

“The statistics of infections have been rising significantly in the Western Cape. One part of me feels like, ‘Of course I’ll adhere to the required health guidelines to offer this service,’ but if this [opportunity] is available to supermarkets, the staff still have to travel daily to go make the food. It’s still contributing to the spread, but this is not to say that the income should only be available to people working from home or those with smaller kitchens.” 

In addition, Van Harte’s impulse to be compassionate has been tempered by her “compromised immune system”, which makes her wary of helping out at soup kitchens because “the social distancing is not being adhered to”.

Negative financial effects

Although the financial effects of the lockdown have been obvious, Van Harte pauses a little to search her thoughts when asked about how this has shaped her relationship with food. 

“I do monthly shopping for the house and top up with veggies or milk as we go on,” she says on the line from Cape Town. “I’ve noticed quite a significant increase in items since I last went to Checkers a month ago. Before the lockdown, I bought some chickpeas and lentils (my daughter is vegetarian). Besides experimenting for herself with exciting recipes, they are cheaper and healthier alternatives. There [have] been a lot more pulses and canned food.  

“I am really intending to start a food garden at home — a small one for now, with  lettuce and herbs. I don’t want to fail at the beginning. I  want to be motivated and add to my food garden as it grows. I believe everybody in the whole world should grow their own food. Over the last couple of years, I have drastically reduced the household intake of meat. Mentally, I am preparing myself to make a start towards a plant-based diet.”

With more time on her hands, Van Harte says she has been reading up on the effects of factory farming, and how it can potentially  spread viruses across different ecosystems. “The meat we eat is coming from factory farming,” she says pensively.

With her kitchen now exclusively being used for her family, Van Harte says everything has been like Groundhog Day. “Cook, clean up, repeat … I had a wobble last week, I was gatvol.”  

There has also been the temptation to comfort eat because of anxiety about the future. “On some days,” says Van Harte, “the stress makes me lose my appetite, like earlier this [Sunday] morning. But I have started some online exercises like yoga and stretching to balance the comfort eating.”

Although she has not been participating in mass food drives such as soup kitchens, Van Harte says she finds some respite in making her house “a beacon for the homeless for a cup of tea or a sandwich. It has helped me to psychologically deal with having lost my income. It makes me feel helpful in some way.”

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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