The importance of food gardens in the Grahamstown, South African and global context

The importance of food gardens in the Grahamstown, South African and global context
by Laura Durham, Lynley Main and Sipho McDermott

I am expecting a dry expanse of earth with weeds sprouting where vegetables are meant to and rakes lying forgotten in the overgrown grass. But the sight that I come across as we walk around the corner of the Assumption Sisters clinic looks nothing like my preconceived idea of a township community garden.

The area is lush with green leaves waving their nutritious fronds to the sunlight, and the plots that are empty look freshly turned and ready for planting. This is the kind of successful garden that every green-fingered person would be proud of and the ladies who oversee the garden are definitely that.

Several ladies from the community of Joza received training from Umthathi, a registered Non-Profit Organisation with the Department of Social Development, last year and were provided with seeds and gardening tools to begin building their own food garden. All of the ladies share in the management of the garden and indicate how they want others to be trained and get certificates from Umthathi like they did. The garden began last year as an initiative of Umthathi’s community gardens project and Koleka Ralo is one of the facilitators who regularly checks up on the garden’s progress. Umthathi does not take a share of the profits, which is distributed among the ladies who sell the produce to the community, and hope to set up a farm stall in front of the property to do so regularly, as opposed to having people shake the gate to ask for a bunch of spinach or carrots.

Monica Kleyi is one of the ladies involved in the garden and is very praising of Umthathi, saying it has “helped us to be self-helpers”. They have transferred the skills learnt and made gardens at their own homes, encouraging neighbours to do the same because “even if there’s no space, we can plant in a basin”. Ruth Mary Ngindo tells us how they have shared the skills they have learnt with their community, and have “taught our children so they can go on to do agriculture”. There are a number of food gardens being grown at schools in order to provide the learners with some extra nutrition and gardens are included in the school syllabus, which means that “if they learn knowledge at school, then they can practise at home” says Ruth.

Spinach is a popular vegetable grown in these gardens because it grows quickly and is very nutritious. Monica explains how the importance of food gardens have been realised by many in her community because “there’s poverty, they’ve realised they need food”. Food gardens are a way to ensure something other than bland rice on the table, and the nutritious value is particularly important to those who are sick and vulnerable to infection. As part of the Umthathi training, the ladies were also taught the medicinal properties of some flowers that they have since grown along they fence. Pumla points out a flower and explains to us how boiling the leaves and drinking the tea relieves hypertension and those of another pretty flower work well to fight flu.

Pumla Noondlwana laughs as she explains how being involved in the garden project means there is “no time for gossip” because it keeps them so busy each day. Monica is proud to have made an effort to better her life and look after her children, and does not need to rely on her husband; “a garden is sometimes not for men, we dig it”.

These ladies have plans to expand their successful garden with the help of Umthathi, but as of yet have not been given a suitable piece of land by the Makana Municipality, despite promises.

Pumla reiterates the good work that Umthathi is doing in their community saying, “they teach us how not to depend” and that is exactly the aim of a food garden: to create a sustainable food source for a community. These ladies can now provide for their families without having to worry that they do not have enough to fill their children’s stomachs, or finding the money to pay for the less-than-fresh vegetables available in the supermarkets.

The success of these women is one that is sorely needed in the rest of South Africa. Successive seasons of low rainfall have led to the national harvest yield falling to such an extent that we now need to import food. This puts the country, which has always enjoyed the status of being a net exporter, at risks to international events that it has no control over. The government needs to address this risk and also feed its people.

The right to food security for all South Africans is enshrined in Chapter Two of the Constitution, which states that every citizen has the right to have access to “sufficient food and water”. It goes on to say that “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights.” The government is therefore mandated to ensure that the citizens of South Africa have adequate food supplies.

In 1994 the government launched the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which saw as a key problem the lack of access to consistent food supplies for historically disadvantaged people. Great effort was put into ensuring that people could get access to goods and training so that they could ensure their own food security. According to the Southern African Regional Poverty Network this plan enjoyed reasonable success but was overhauled by the government in 2000. In its place the Integrated Food Security Strategy was implemented by government to bring together different elements of the economy and government so as to give sustainable access to food for all people in the country.

In Grahamstown this led to the National Department of Health launching a School-Based Gardens Project in October 2005 in Joza. Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang herself was present to launch the programme, which sought to “positively influence communities and children's behaviour with regard to establishing food gardens within their schools to alleviate hunger and fight poverty among school communities”. These gardens have however struggled to kick off the ground with their intended objectives not being reached in many cases. As a result the level of hunger and malnutrition amongst children, who critically need food to allow their brains to develop properly, is still very higher for a nation with such great goals for development and prosperity for all.

With the community of Joza not having many sources of income, as is the case in a nation with some 40% unemployment, they are facing a bleak future if the government does not manage to find them local sources of food. The problem has been exacerbated in the last year with the global rise in food prices. According to the National Consumers Forum the price of all staple foodstuffs has increased dramatically, at a rate far greater than wage inflation. Rice has gone up by 70% in the period and corn, maize and soya have seen similar increases. In general the average price of food in the first four months of 2008 is 53% greater than that for the same period in 2007. Drastic methods clearly need to be adjusted with this spiralling increase.

Food gardens can also play an important role on a global level. Food security is recognised as being a major concern and statistics released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimated that 600 million people worldwide will regularly go hungry by 2015 if there is not a drastic change made to current policies.

Food gardens help combat the issue of food security by providing a sustainable and relatively cheap means of growing food. They also make it possible for people living below the poverty line to get food. There is already a global food crisis, with global food prices rising by 75% due to the use of bio fuels. The political leaders in both the United States and Britain deny this claim and state that food prices have only risen by 3%, even though all the evidence is to the contrary.

The World Bank estimated that this rise in food prices has pushed 100 million people below the poverty line and that people living in poor countries cannot afford enough to eat. There is clearly a global problem with food availability and as a result there is a need for alternative options. Food gardens are just one of these options and manage to solve problems of cost and availability. They also allow the growers to be independent. They are not at the mercy of global food markets and can actually afford to eat since they grow the food themselves.

The concept of food gardens has become popular and there are people, including middle-class people, in countries such as Britain who are building their own food gardens. George Monbiot, a journalist who moonlights as a gardener, is just one of these people. He writes about the numerous advantages of growing your own fruit and vegetables, and says that while there are skills needed, such as knowing what to plant and when, once these have been mastered it becomes a simple and rewarding process.

The global food crisis and ever-increasing prices of food mean that many people in the world are at risk of being unable to afford food. Food gardens provide an easy solution since they allow people who do not easy access to money to grow their own food and obtain useful skills.

With the South African government struggling to import the required foodstuffs the best alternative has to be through the implementation of a nationwide food garden programme. This low-cost alternative would allow people to use what little land they have to grow enough food so that they are not reliant on unstable food sources and also do not have to spend their meagre earnings.


About Ukulima Grahamstown

Ukulima means 'to cultivate' in isiXhosa and we felt it was a very appropriate name for our project since we are exploring how food gardens are a local and sustainable solution to the global crisis that is food security.

We are a group of third year journalism students that were given the topic 'food gardens' as part of our Critical Media Production course. We are a multimedia group consisting of writers, designers, TV, radio and photojourn students and have been working together, as well as with various civic organisations and community projects on a number of media outputs.

Even though this project will only last six weeks, we hope to 'cultivate' some change in our community and make our media outputs sustainable in that we wish to leave behind knowledge that will benefit people and hopefully lead them in the right direction in creating a food garden that will make them self-sufficient.

We are creating a DVD of all of our visual outputs, which will come with a 'how to' brochure and packet of seeds. We plan to distribute these to various schools, clinics and community centres in the Grahamstown/iRhini area in the hopes that we can encourage people to build food gardens of their own.

We are exhibiting all of our work at Barratt Lecture Hall, Rhodes University on October 22 2008, and hope that members of the community take a look at our efforts in promoting the idea of food gardens.