Transforming Cape Town’s Covid soup kitchens into spaces of dignity – a community vision

This blog post explores the emergence of community kitchens in the wake of the COVID crisis. It examines their potential as a move beyond the ‘charity’ model of addressing hunger, towards a transformative perspective, rooted in dignity and the right to food. Readers can also learn more in this article and in a new podcast series “uPhakantoni?” (what are you dishing?).

Written by Sanelisiwe Nyaba, Haidee Swanby and Stefanie Lemke

COVID-19, soup kitchens and the right to food in South Africa

On the 5th March 2020, the South African government announced a complete lockdown of the country. Citizens were strictly confined to their homes (those who have them), unless they were considered to deliver essential services or could prove that they needed to leave home for essential purposes. It was enforced by the police and the military, in some cases with fatal consequences.

These lockdown measures highlighted the government’s fundamental lack of understanding of how the poor access their food, including the vital role of informal producers and traders and school feeding schemes in the daily sustenance of the nation. In response to the widespread hunger brought about by the lockdown measures, the government embarked upon a process to provide food parcels and vouchers. However, the programme was woefully inadequate to cater for all those in need and in many instances, crippled by corrupt practices.

While the long-term transformation of our inequitable food system should be systematic and sustainable, the nature of the crisis called for emergency support. In response, individuals, collective and community organisations and faith-based groups set up soup kitchens. They are run mostly by women, often with support from civil society. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including government, corporates, NGOs and philanthropists. Depending on capacity and available funding or donations these soup kitchen offer a meal between once a day to three times per week, usually accessible either at specific community centres or to everyone who is in need.

These approaches are based on a charitable model and an emergency mindset, yet do very little to contend with the underlying problems that give rise to food insecurity. Grassroots networks and movements in Cape Town, like elsewhere, are responding by interrogating the structural inequalities that make them a necessity and are imagining a new social compact that implements the right to food. In this context, these networks are also developing grassroots alternatives that focus on agency and empowerment, focusing on localizing food systems and on leveraging the new relationships that soup kitchens had catalysed, but in a transformative way.

This is what gave rise to the notion of The Community Kitchen in the Cape Town Flats.

Nozibele Mbeleki of uPhakanini Community Kitchen dishing for the kids, Photo: Sanelisiwe Nyaba

Empowering Spaces : uPhakanini community kitchen in Cape Town

As documented through a community-based research project on food agency in Cape Town (see the end of this article for more information), the idea of a community kitchen was born out of the felt need in the community to transform soup kitchens. The first step was to do away with the label ‘soup kitchen’, which has a long history as a ‘bandaid’ approach that does little to tackle root problems. Community members also expressed a lot of criticism of the way that soup kitchens operated. Community members voiced their concerns about the quality of food served, feeling ashamed of going to dish at kitchens, and the need to do away with the concept that giving food to hungry people is an adequate response.

The research brought community members together to deliberate on how to solve food insecurity. The vision of the community kitchen grew through a series of reflective workshops as a concept that would do more than only address hunger in communities. It was recognized that hunger was but one social ill that communities in Cape Town are dealing with, and that access to food in the city is deeply shaped by the intersection of different forms of inequity related to racism, gender, class and other forms of oppression. These were demonstrated in the findings that location shapes how food insecure households are, that the most food insecure households are woman-headed, while those working in the food sector tend to be the most food insecure. What this shows is that there are a number of other issues that run along the issue of hunger, such as unemployment, lack of skills, and gender-based violence.

Zolani Mfihlo and Sanelisiwe Nyaba perform a poem “I guess then I am poor” at a community research reflection workshop, April 2021, Photo: Yada Network

The community kitchen, therefore, would be a space wherein food is put at the centre of these issues, people come to eat but also to learn a skill. User-workers of the community kitchen contribute by volunteering, while also dishing up in the process. This way, community members believed, the kitchens are not just giving handouts but also creating a space where people can be empowered to become active agents in this process. uPhakanini is an isiXhosa term that means ‘when are you dishing up?’.

The idea of community kitchens is still very much at a young stage, and the research collaborative that undertook this work continues, along with other community members and supportive civil society networks, to create and strengthen these spaces in the community. In the same breath the co-researchers felt it important to share back the work and research findings to communities. This will give birth to what will be community dialogues in each research site. These dialogues will grapple with the issue of the right to food, how to localise food systems and help create multifunctional food hubs. Stay tuned!

Khuthala Bokolo presents the research background at a community research reflection workshop, April 2021. Photo: Yada Network

Want to know more?

Podcast uPhakantoni: What are you dishing? This podcast, titled “uPhakantoni?” (what are you dishing?), is the first episode of a series of podcasts that will be told about the community kitchen. For the additional episodes please click here.

Based on a collaboration between the co-researcher group, the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University in the UK and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna, the idea was born to produce a podcast on the process of establishing the uPhakanini community kitchen. The story is told by Nomonde Buthelezi and Sanelisiwe Nyaba (Mimi) who were involved from the beginning in setting up the community kitchens, and who are members of the co-researcher group. A local musician and artist, Zolani Mfihlo, contributed with his songs about farmers. We received support from the AgroecologyNow collective at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, who initiated a podcast training that was facilitated by the Story Center. Heinrich Boell Foundation Cape Town also supported this project.

Related Article: “Violence, Hunger and Seeds of Care”

Sanelisiwe Nyaba and Haidee Swanby also wrote a blog for the Critical Food Studies website, entitled “Violence, Hunger and Seeds of Care”. This blog offers a personal account of how the COVID-19 induced lockdown and related measures in South Africa affected people on the ground, and provides some of the underlying political context. 

About the authors and the research collaboration:

This collaborative research on agency in South Africa’s food system is part of a larger study in five countries, entitled “Growing and eating food during the Covid-19 pandemic: farmers’ perspectives on local food system resilience to shocks in Southern Africa and Indonesia”, published in Sustainability.

The South African study is entitled “Agency in South Africa‘s food systems. A food justice perspective of food security in the Cape Flats and St. Helena Bay during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The research is based on collective research carried out by the Weskusmandjie fisherwomen’s collective in St. Helena Bay and the Urban Farmer Research Club of Cape Town, along with affiliated networks of community kitchen chefs, fruit vendors, and local food activists from Gugulethu, Mitchell’s Plain, Khayelitsha, and Mfuleni neighbourhoods in Cape Town. This network launched a research collaboration with German students from the Centre for Rural Development (SLE) at Humboldt University. The study explored the theme of agency in South Africa’s food systems with a special focus on food security in the Cape Flats and St. Helena Bay in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, using a food justice perspective. Specifically, it examined the state of food security in five communities after the first COVID-19 lockdown and further, assessed how much agency people felt they had with regards to their food access and choices.

The project is supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation Cape Town and TMG Think Tank for Sustainability, Berlin.