‘Food is love’
‘Food is love’
In London and Cape Town, Dee Woods and Stefanie Swanepoel work to make sure everyone, not just the rich, can afford healthy food. They talk to Amy Hall about their ideas on how to change our food systems for the better.
Dee Woods first became a food activist after the British government suddenly took away her disability benefits. She had two young children with very little money and she thought that ‘as a community we can do something better than just the food bank’. So she started the Granville Community Kitchen. It is now a garden, a vegetable box scheme, and an intercultural food centre in South Kilburn, northwest London. Dee is now involved in advocacy at a city, national and international level.
Stefanie Swanepoel is part of an organic farm run by the ‘kos gangsters’, an all-woman group of farmers from the Ocean View township in Cape Town. The co-operative started in 2019 and now grows vegetables like lettuces, tomatoes, and beetroot. It runs a café and a bakery, and has seeds for home growers and gardens of wild food, indigenous medicine and herbs – all in 0.6-hectare of land. Stef is a writer, researcher, and food systems expert. She says that growing food in Ocean View, ‘one of the most violent communities in South Africa’, helps stress and gives people food.
Amy Hall: Stef, can you tell me more about the Ocean View farm, and your ideas?
Stefanie Swanepoel: Ocean View Farm is a beautiful story about women. They have had success in a very difficult situation. It’s a story of all races, all cultures. People feel at home in this place.
We have the farm and soup kitchens. Groups visit us and about 70 children come here every day for an after-school club.
We’ve had workshops on composting, growing plants, vertical gardens, and cooking kelp. Before the lockdown we had free yoga and dance classes. There are often festivals. It’s a lot about putting ‘culture’ back into ‘agriculture’ because we lost that.
Our idea is to train radical farmers. We would like people to come for a year with practical training in sustainable agriculture, the food system, how to make a change.
Amy: Dee, tell me about Granville Community Kitchen and why you started it.
Dee Woods: I and a friend Leslie Barson wanted people to learn about food and how to grow it and more. We decided it wasn’t enough just to have a community food-growing garden. We need to help people to learn new skills. The food bank model is just wrong. You get a bag of not-very-good food, most of it comes from surplus.
Like Ocean View, we started a community food and training centre. We also do education, training, and health support. We have a small farm in South Kilburn and we hope to get four hectares of land in West London so that we can start our market garden. We hope to start a small dairy as well.
Amy: In your communities what are the problems with getting healthy food?
Dee: Right now, you have to walk a long way or take a bus to find shops with food people can afford. That’s why we wanted a new local food economy. South Kilburn is one of the 20-per-cent of the poorest areas in England, and poverty affects black and Asian people the most, and people like those from migrant communities with no help from public funds.
Stef: It’s about the same here. The biggest problem in South Africa to get food, and especially healthy food, is the cost. Poverty levels in Ocean View are high. It’s one of the most food-insecure suburbs in the country. There’s a problem getting good, healthy, and especially organic food because the shops are mostly takeaways. Even if people can get to the supermarket – and taking a minibus taxi can be quite expensive – the food is expensive.
Amy: Tell us what ‘culturally appropriate’ food means and why it is important.
Dee: South Kilburn is one of the most mixed areas in Britain with almost 400 languages spoken. We have people from all over the world, mostly from the Caribbean, North Africa, East Africa, and Eastern Europe – as well as Ireland. People have their own food cultures but often they can’t get their traditional food. And changing to a European diet means people get ill: high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes.
Stef: Colonialism made the food system that we live with today. If we look at Africa, colonial bosses changed eating habits when they introduced maize as food for workers. Now most African countries use maize food security. But maize is not as healthy as sorghum, millet, or other indigenous grains.
Dee: It’s also about getting young people onto the land again. They need to understand where food comes from: it’s not wrapped up like in the supermarket, it doesn’t come in a tin or a packet. Real food has dirt on it and insects.
Amy: You both run vegetable boxes for low-income communities. How do they work?
Stef: We sell the boxes in richer communities; it’s a surprise box and they can’t choose what’s in it. And that subsidizes the cost of vegetables for people in Ocean View and from the African townships. I think that’s fair. That’s trying to change our economy. We also sell bread to the community at a subsidized cost. We bake 1,000 loaves of bread a month for local food schemes, we give smaller ‘food-security gardens’ 300 seedlings a month, and give vegetables to a local food scheme to the value of R7000 ($486) a month.
Dee: We have a similar plan. We have two prices and people choose what fits them. Those who can pay more subsidize those who can’t pay full price. We also have a solidarity fund.
It’s also about offering food that is seasonal and local. And we have a lot of culturally appropriate food, which comes from elsewhere. We are working with some farmers in West Africa. It would be great to get some products from Ocean View – if they were surplus and you fed your community first.
Amy: Building alternatives is important for you both. Can you tell me more about this?
Stef: I was an activist for many years. But my blood pressure was so high. It was the stress of trying to stop a system that seems impossible to change. One of the reasons that I love working at the farm, and with people, is that we are trying to build new systems.
Dee: Exactly the same for me. I’m still trying to change the systems but I am not getting too involved in that now. We are building the world we want to see.
Stef: New systems take time. It’s changing hundreds of years of colonialism and, in South Africa, apartheid, poverty, intergenerational violence, and alcohol abuse. So, it’s not something that you start and say ‘in two months’ time we will have this’, because you are working with people and all these problems. It takes years to rebuild a system, if we want it to be inclusive and equitable.
Amy: What food activism are you excited about right now?
Stef: There are some things that are starting to move. In South Africa we have an agro-ecology movement which is about 170-180 organizations, big and small. The only problem is that we do not all work together and we get confused – like the difference between ‘biodynamic’ and ‘agro-ecological’ – and everybody has their own idea.
Dee: I am part of trying to make the food movement more inclusive, and decolonizing our food system. It’s not easy but we need to do it because the global food system is based on oppression and neo-colonialism. If we don’t change that, nothing will ever change.
Stef: To end apartheid, every organization had to come together. The food system activists of the world need to come together around one call for change.
Dee: I think that call is a human rights call – the idea that we all have the right to eat and eat well. Food has been a commodity for 500 years but it’s so much more. Food is our life. Food is culture. Food is love.
A word from Ocean View’s farmers
‘Be connected with the earth and you’ll find peace’ Nikky Jacobs, co-operative member
‘It’s such a joy to pick your own food.’ Sophia Grodes, head farmer
‘I never believed that I would be my own boss and create my own garden.’ Carrin Roberts, co-operative member
Watch the video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLsMdKKj33E - ‘Kos gangsters’, YouTube, 14 November 2020
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)