UCT students lift the lid on food security

The students who have lifted the lid on food insecurity in Cape Towns impoverished areas are, from left, Mihlali Vezi, Luvo Mbobo, Aphiwe Meyiwa (seated), Lwazi Mpuku and Nicole Bolton.

Some impoverished residents in Bonteheuwel and Langa are going without food more than 10 days every month.

This is one of the astonishing findings of a group of UCT medical students whose fourth-year research project has lifted the lid on the shocking state of food security in Cape Town’s poorer areas.

The study, which canvassed 121 patients at the Vanguard community health centre in Bonteheuwel over a two-day period, found 81.82 percent of those surveyed endured food insecurity to some extent, but even more disturbingly, more than half (53.71 percent) reported being “severely” insecure, in that they went entire days and nights without food.

While the five students – Mihlali Vezi, Nicole Bolton, Aphiwe Meyiwa, Luvo Mbobo and Lwazi Mpuku – acknowledge their study only surveyed a small number of people when compared to the broader population of Bonteheuwel and Langa, the significance of their findings is not lost on them.

“Previously, stakeholders estimated food insecurity to affect about half the population and felt that unemployment was an important contributor to this problem. However, evidently the burden of food insecurity is much higher than initially anticipated, at least among the clinic population,” the group said.

Although the students emphasise their study was limited to the clinic, local NGOs have been quick to point out its relevance to the greater communities.

Agnus Lukas, of the Labon Foundation, which distributes food to the poor, said the research had not only helped to identify the need for poverty alleviation and food insecurity support but “helped us identify downfalls in our current system”.

“If people do not have food to eat and we have already served all our food, we can see the despair in their faces. For many, we are their only hope for a daily meal,” she said.

Eric Galada and Nono Solomon, of the Langa Health Committee, said the study had shown the need for ongoing initiatives.

“We cannot feed people for one month and then the programme dies down. The need is not going to disappear,” they said.

“While we feel that community involvement is an important part of any action plan, the community alone is not enough. They need more support than what they themselves can offer. At the moment the Langa Health Committee and the Langa Environmental Action Forum are working to establish food gardens. But the gardens primarily serve the smaller communities directly around them. The food insecurity problem extends far beyond that.”

Speaking to the Tatler at the UCT Health Sciences campus in Observatory this week, the students revealed how the project had become so much more than a part of their public health studies.

“This is a very prevalent problem in these areas,” Ms Vezi said.

“We tried to separate our emotions from the task, but it is very difficult. It became very personal. None of us has lived in Bonteheuwel or Langa, but this is what these communities have to endure. I think as UCT students there is an expectation that we have a voice and can help, but food insecurity is a huge problem. What we have tried to do is speak to the community through our statistics and data, and create awareness about the issue.”

Mr Mpuku believed the plight of these residents was rooted firmly in the inequalities of the past.

“These residents or their descendants were forcibly removed under apartheid and forced to settle without anything. It is no easy task trying to change something that was done systematically 60 years ago.”

For Ms Bolton, hearing the stories and seeing the despair of those surveyed resonated deeply.

“You have mothers who are absolutely distraught because they are unable to feed their children. They feel like they’re failing. So this is actually about so much more than food insecurity.”

Mr Meyiwa agreed that the study had far-reaching implications.

“Before we started the study, we might have believed that people were missing the odd meal, but these communities are regularly going without food. Something needs to be done,” he said.

While they have been deeply affected by the findings, the students said they found themselves at “something of a crossroads”.

“It would be very easy to get our medical students to donate food, but that will not provide a long-term solution. I think what we need to do is create as much awareness as possible, reaching out to the media to tell people what is happening. The more people know about it, the more can be done for these communities.”