Food for the cities programme

From Crisis to Transformation

Strengthening urban food governance in Cape Town during a pandemic


Cape Town – the South African city known for its majestic mountains and pristine beaches is also defined by inequality, poverty and food insecurity. Although the Western Cape province is a surplus food producer, a vast amount of Capetonians suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger. In addition, the high prevalence of unhealthy diets in urban and peri-urban areas results in widespread overweight and obesity as well as non-communicable diseases. 

Compounding these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted Cape Town’s food system. While there were little disruptions to local food production and supply chains, the lockdown brutally exposed the weaknesses of the downstream food value chain. Overnight, job losses and movement restrictions pushed many additional people into poverty and food insecurity. Without an income, temporarily confined to their area, and in view of rising food prices, countless people were no longer able to afford or access nutritious food. The lockdown regulations also restricted economic activity, including food markets and informal traders which are critical to the food security of low-income communities. Moreover, school closures meant that children in need did not receive the school meals they depended on.  

How the City of Cape Town reacted to the increased food insecurity during the pandemic 

Without a food relief mandate, the City of Cape Town initially found itself with limited ways to take action. Thus, the emergency food response was largely driven by civil society. In many neighbourhoods, self-organised Community Action Networks were established to help citizens in need. Nevertheless, the City compiled a list of civil society and community-based organisations they could support, and collaborated with the provincial government and civil society to provide food relief through community kitchens and food parcels. To identify vulnerable households, the administration repurposed a vulnerability map created during the 2017-2018 water crisis. The Philippi Horticultural Area, an agricultural zone that has a fresh produce market, was revitalised and augmented with an agri-hub through the City’s Urban Catalytic Investment project, using the space as a hub for food distribution and refrigeration facilities. 

In addition, the city-led Food System Working Group, which was already set up before the pandemic and comprises of local and provincial government representatives and academics, prepared a humanitarian relief programme. To avoid having people queue up for food in times of physical distancing, an innovative food voucher system was piloted through a partnership led by the Western Cape Government. The digital food vouchers allowed citizens to regain agency and purchase food at their convenience and preference in local markets and informal stores, while also stimulating the local economy. Due to its success, the voucher system is now used by the City of Cape Town to fund community kitchens. Aiming for a more sustainable long-term solution, the City also promoted household and community food gardens by distributing seeds and providing training on urban gardening.  


Strengthening resilience towards multiple shocks and stresses through urban food governance 

Recent crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and the extreme drought that led to the 2018 water crisis have demonstrated the urgent need to build resilience towards different shocks and stresses across the entire food system. Already before the pandemic, the City of Cape Town had launched a Resilience Strategy, in which food security was recognised for the first time as a priority, as part of a wider health and climate imperative. By tackling food insecurity, the municipality aims to reduce chronic stress on its vulnerable citizens, which affects not only the health of individuals and households but also the economy and healthcare system. The City identified multiple risks to its food system: sudden shocks such as drought, flooding, infrastructure failure, economic crisis, and pandemics as well as chronic stresses like poverty, unemployment, climate change, crime and violence. 

The Resilience Strategy represents an important starting point for the City’s food work. Due to the complexity of the food system, which is currently only loosely governed, the City recognised the need for applying a food system approach. What followed, was the development of a Food System Programme, aiming for enhanced resilience and food security. Transversal in its nature, the programme is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact as well as C40 and ICLEI food system programmes. Its six themes include food governance, food resilience, food production, food environments, food and health, and food economy.  

Finalised in 2021, the proposed programme includes mainstreaming food into relevant policies, strategies, plans and by-laws as well as gathering data to inform food-related decision-making. Moreover, the programme aims to foster multistakeholder collaboration and leverage knowledge sharing through international city food system networks. A monitoring and evaluation framework as well as annual reports will be used to measure progress.  

Instrumental to the development of the Food System Programme, the City not only carried out a food flow mapping and vulnerability analysis but also conducted a mandates audit across local, provincial and national governments to understand where it has capacity to address food security and food systems issues. Despite the missing direct food mandate, the City acknowledged that they play a significant role in the food system through spatial planning, infrastructure and the management of the informal economy. Additionally, the municipality is directly responsible for food manufacturing and agri-processing as well as supply and waste management.   

Activating these existing local government mandates, the municipality has already started integrating food into spatial planning and design processes. For the first time, the City considered food elements in their district planning processes, especially looking at providing infrastructural support for traders at public transport interchanges, and better protecting agricultural land. Under the overarching concept of health, food has also been integrated into the updated Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework. 

To contribute to building the resilience of its food system to future shocks and stresses, the City proposes to develop a disaster risk reduction response, plan for food system disruption scenarios, and build food safety nets. The proposed Food System Programme also includes encouraging sustainable farming within Cape Town’s food region and enabling a circular food economy. The consumption of healthy food would be promoted through communication campaigns, public food procurement, targeted nutrition interventions, and improved food safety.  

Lessons learned from Cape Town’s food system challenges 

Both before and throughout the pandemic, multistakeholder collaboration and coordination have proven to be invaluable. The organisation of conversations and workshops on specific topics via the City’s Food System Working Group offers government officials the opportunity to exchange about their work and network to strengthen internal collaboration. Moreover, the expertise provided by academics serves as valuable input for interventions and policy development. It is this connection of people and practical information feeding into city projects that is the driving force of the City’s food work. Equally important are externally-led multi-stakeholder platforms like the Western Cape Food Forum, the Western Cape Food Governance Community of Practice, Food Dialogues, and the Southern Africa Food Lab, which also involve civil society organisations, marginalised voices, and the private sector.  

The access barriers to food due to the lockdown measures demonstrated the importance of civil society action and food safety nets. To strengthen food system resilience, the municipality aims to promote the establishment of a social infrastructure by continuously updating the list of civil society organisations, providing support, and fostering connections.  

Mapping the food flows within the city highlighted the crucial importance of the informal food sector. This analysis revealed that around 60-70% of Capetonians access their food through informal traders. Indeed, the most vulnerable population relies heavily on the informal sector due to its flexible payment opportunities, affordability due to bulk-breaking and its proximity*. Thus, the City acknowledged the need to support the informal sector in their proposed Food System Programme.  

What the future holds for the proposal is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the development of the programme has certainly laid the foundation for city-led interventions for a more resilient, sustainable and healthy urban food system.  

Photo credit: City of Cape Town

*: Battersby, Marshak & Mngqibisa, 2016. Mapping the Informal Food Economy in Cape Town, South Africa (rep., pp. 1-22). Waterloo, ON: Hungry Cities Partnership. Hungry Cities Partnership Discussion Paper No. 5.

(This article is based on an interview with Tamsin Faragher, Principal Resilience Officer at the City of Cape Town.)