Hunger is a very well-known feeling to me. In my second year at the University of the Free State (UFS), I would dig up food from dustbins around the student centre.
Often, friends would give or buy food for me. Toward the end of the year, I collected coins on the floor or from friends to buy food. This ordeal taught me that our present food environment manifests hunger.
Eight of every ten UFS students in 2017 reported that they sometimes ran out of food and were not able to buy more. This despite the average student spending between R500 – R1500 per month on food, according to the 2017 South African Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE).
The core issue is that the food environment is geared toward market-profit interests and not eradicating the hunger of students. This also means students have little power over the food environment, or access to food which is nutritious and culturally appropriate. This is also a problem for small-scale producers who are increasingly isolated from participating in the food market due to a few companies vying for more control.
On World Food Day in 2018 (16 October), I launched the UFS Food Sovereignty Campaign. This project, inspired by the Wits Food Sovereignty Centre, provides an alternative food environment to address hunger while giving students more control over the production of their food, hence the term “sovereignty”. It means students can choose what they want to produce, rather than having to consume what the market chooses to provide.
Through the campaign, access to food is prioritised and collaborative production initiatives, small-scale production, and agroecology are preferred modes of producing that food. In specific terms, this means the university is encouraged to grow food with students and small-scale farmers (using sustainable and regenerative agroecology methods) both on and off-campus.
Off-campus, there are existing small-scale farms (sometimes conjoined in cooperatives) which the university urgently needs to partner with to grow food directly for students. This relationship should be cooperative, instead of transactional. The United Nations has declared the upcoming decade for family farms, stating:
“The UN Decade of Family Farming 2019-2028 aims to shed new light on what it means to be a family farmer in a rapidly changing world and highlights more than ever before the important role they play in eradicating hunger and shaping our future of food. Family farming offers a unique opportunity to ensure food security, improve livelihoods, better manage natural resources, protect the environment and achieve sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. Thanks to their wisdom and care for the earth, family farmers are the agents of change we need to achieve Zero Hunger, a more balanced and resilient planet, and the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Zero Hunger is a concept that can only be achieved by groups of people working in solidarity to grow and distribute food.
If indeed some students can spend at least R500 on food for a month, investing this capital in their own produce will collectively produce more food than spending this money at relatively expensive food vendors at the university.
Moreover, there are students who are seriously food insecure. Food gardens at the university can provide produce to existing food bank initiatives. The agricultural market will not address hunger. They will continue to produce food that people cannot afford. If we want to address hunger, we must grow food and teach others to do the same.
UFS has recently approved plans for a food garden at the university, however, they have not fully committed to principles of agroecology and food sovereignty. Students are also still excluded from participation in this food-growing project.
Eventually, however, the food environment will migrate from the interests of the markets to the interests of the hungry. While the market creates hunger, our economies of solidarity will address it. Students will migrate from digging dustbins to digging compost and from picking coins from the floor to picking produce from the ground.
The lesson of food sovereignty is simply that we are the ones we have been waiting for – until we are no longer hungry.
The University responds:
According to Lacea Loader, communications and marketing director at UFS, they disagree with Tshiamo Malatji’s statements that the university has not fully committed to principles of agroecology and food sovereignty and that students are excluded from the UFS food-growing project.
“The university’s integrated transformational plan has created a multi-stakeholder food environment task team. This task team has resulted in an integrated institutional framework, aimed at establishing a food environment on all three UFS campuses towards addressing food-insecurity and malnutrition. Part of this framework is to empower students to grow their own food through food gardens.”
She further highlights that a strong emphasis is also placed on teaching students how to buy nutritious food on a small budget. The university’s executive management has adopted this framework in August this year.
Loader explains that designated student governance structures form an integral part of this task team and focus group discussions have been conducted with various student cohorts in order to ensure that the student perspective is effectively incorporated in this integrated institutional framework.