Food Gardens: CSI’s Ugly Duckling Soon to Become the Swan?

Food security
Wednesday, 2 June, 2010 - 10:26

Businesses tend to overlook initiatives that seek to support marginalised and poor communities when investing in communities through corporate social investment (CSI). CSI funding in South Africa is channelled into education, health, HIV/AIDS and community development. However, food security is often overlooked and requires sustained ongoing and uninterrupted support

South Africa’s government has committed itself to achieving eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and arguably the chief determinant among these is food security. That’s because human development is dependent on human health. And good health is dependent on good nutrition.

Yet, initiatives that seek to support marginalised and poor communities’ food security appear to be left to gather up the crumbs under the corporate social investment (CSI) funding table in South Africa. The lion’s share of CSI funding locally is channelled into education, health and HIV, and social and community development, understandably. However, food security – as a class of development project – falls seventh on the list after Enterprise Development and the Environment.

It would seem that the powerful dual impact of food security projects is being overlooked, or much misunderstood. This dual nature encompasses both short-term reactive and long-term proactive solutions to social inequity and injustice.

Firstly, the provision of support for community food security initiatives allows development workers a direct and tangible way to support the basic and immediate welfare needs of a targeted community. A feeding scheme allows poor and malnourished people access to good nutritious food for as close to free as possible. There are different models for getting this right; from collecting surplus (e.g. after sell-by-date) merchandise from the formal economy, to negotiating regular donor support (in cash or in kind) from the private sector to procure food for distribution to the needy. Logistics preclude this sort of public benefit activity to urban areas, however, where concentrations of poor people and their relative proximity to food supply allow for cost effective service delivery.

Secondly, best practice food security projects have also recognised that building sustainability into their operating model means building self-sufficiency into the package for the beneficiary. Indeed, to coin a phrase, who can argue with the logic of giving someone their own fishing rod and teaching them to fish for themselves – as opposed to feeding them just for the day? Teaching the poor and malnourished how to cultivate their own nutritious food is both the most noble and the most cost effective food security intervention.

But creating the right environment for those who wish to take up the skills learnt – to establish and care for their own food garden as part of a new lifestyle – also requires the provision of basic farmer support (having a local presence providing information, expertise, and possibly collectively bargained discount inputs and collectively bargained marketing channels – where possible). Yes, there is arguably a role and a place for activation campaigns (getting people to start growing veggies), but more importantly, there is a need for ongoing support.

Among local CSI funders over the past while, there has been more a failure to recognise that food security projects, be they feeding scheme or home-farmer developing in nature, require sustained ongoing and uninterrupted support. All too often a project is funded just long enough to see the food garden established – without ensuring that the requisite support structures that need to exist to support the micro-farmer are in place and are themselves sustainable.

All agricultural production worldwide requires sustained public support: be it in the provision of infrastructure to help deliver inputs and produce efficiently, to tax breaks and incentives, through to direct state subsidies, no farmer can succeed without sustained support of his/her community.

And so it is true for the micro-farmer at the homestead in Port St Johns in rural Eastern Cape through to the community garden initiative in urban Khayelitsha in the Western Cape: all require ongoing, uninterrupted support. And as many sound instances in these areas are demonstrating, long-term funding support is producing real, deep and meaningful change in the lives of beneficiaries:

A culture of growing one’s own food is re-entrenched, with a small but growing minority of beneficiaries now making a living from their food gardens – earning enough money to send their kids to functional schools and to save for the future;
They are also providing good, healthy produce to their immediate community at a fair price thus simultaneously increasing that community’s food security directly, and, reducing that community’s carbon footprint (growing vegetable gardens organically sinks carbon, and, growing it locally means much less fossil fuels burnt transporting it to market).

This is not pie in the sky idealism. This is real, and the results are demonstrable. However, the incidence of success is far too small in the face of the need in our country. We require a countrywide movement in support of home and community food gardening, and the movement needs patrons who are in it for the long term. Every community deserves and should have an opportunity to engage with the possibilities that food gardening provides – from the Nelson Mandela Metro to the Winnie Mandela informal settlement. This reach requires much greater levels of investment and commitment from the South African corporate social investment community.

Designed expertly, managed efficiently and funded earnestly, food security projects in South Africa will lay the foundation of a prosperous nation for all. The seemingly out of place ugly duckling will, in time and with support, grow to be the swan.

- Graeme Wilkinson is a senior CSI Practitioner at Tshikululu Social Investments specialising in sustainable livelihoods and community development. It is republished here with the permission of Tshikululu Social Investment .

Related organisation(s): 
Tshikululu Social Investments

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