A young person’s reflections on building sustainable food systems

“This memory, confirmed in many subsequent experiences of eating, reinforced my realization that food (consciously or not) is experienced not only as matter in itself, but also as sustenance with a story of production, a legacy of human re-creation and a source in nature.”Desiree Lewis

Our backyard garden is one of my favorite spots at home. You will find beetroot, carrots, tsunga(mustard seed), covo, spinach, tomatoes, and chives growing at different points of the year.

Every three years during the winter months, our lemon trees bless us with the sour yellow fruit. Before the unusual storm in April 2019, we would pick big buttery avocados from the avo tree. Occasionally the strawberry bushes make an appearance. And without a doubt, December is harvest time for chibage (maize).

I’ve learned that growing food means waiting. Hoping that the seed breaks through the earth and weather conditions are good enough for the season. It means tracking its growth. And the joy of having homegrown food on my plate is unmatched.

A large urban garden and private access to water (borehole water due to poor public service delivery) allow my family to control the production and processing of our food. This is a privilege that many people in Zimbabwe and around the world do not have. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states that a total of 842 million are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger, regularly not getting enough food to conduct an active life.

My mother maintains the agricultural practices of her rural upbringing. In everything we do, we make sure not to harm our environment. To manage our household waste, we separate our trash. Food waste and crop residue are used to build our compost pile. We reuse plastic bags as a medium for growing avocados trees. At a household level, we practice the principles of the circular economy.

I’ve learned that the food we grow isn’t just for us. Often times we’ll sell our produce to neighbors and nearby vegetable vendors. When family visits we always make sure they leave with a bag of homegrown produce. As I grow older, I understand how powerful it is to control one's own food production, feed your community with healthy and safe products and respect the environment you plant in.

However, this appreciation of sustainable farming and healthy eating stems from a period of lack. At university, I lived alone and had to budget weekly groceries. I traded tsunga ine dovi (peanut butter) for frozen mixed vegetables. Handpicked fresh spinach was replaced by plastic-wrapped Swiss chard that never tasted right. I quickly learned how expensive avocados were. But also, the weird elitist status bohemian culture had attributed to the fruit commonly grown in my rural homestead of Honde Valley, Nyanga.

My family and I are one small part of our communities & global food systems. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations defines food systems as “the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and parts of the broader economic, societal and natural environments in which they are embedded”.

In short, food systems are a complex web of activities that include getting food from farms to plates but also the processes and infrastructure that feed populations. From culture to the environment to employment, food passes different aspects of our lives. It is the foundation of societies and economies.

Collectively, these activities should ensure that all populations are food secure. Food security refers to “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary need and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (Clay:2002).

Moving away from home made me realize how inaccessible and expensive healthy foods were. It made me question if it was ethical to promote good nutrition without ensuring accessibility and affordability to such goods. The conversations around food consumption patterns and food waste often felt laden with individual guilt and shame.

But our choices and knowledge of food are largely determined by environmental factors such as economic and market factors, policies, levels of education, culture, geography, and others. Shouldn’t our attention focus more on the structural factors shaping people’s access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food? What about addressing the challenge of food loss ie overproduction of food by industry, retailers' demands for aesthetically pleasing produce, and limited technology for harvesting?

One of my undergraduate classes, International Political Economy revealed the various dimensions of malnutrition and its relation to power structures. In the patriarchal capitalistic society, socio-economic positioning, gender, culture, and location determine what you can consume. Understanding that malnutrition in urban areas includes households consuming high levels of “carbohydrates, saturated fats, proteins” while consuming low levels of fruits and vegetables is due to low incomes illustrated that how unequal our food system is ( Vorster et al : 2011)

Socio-economic inequalities and profit-orientated agri-business practices determine which groups get access to healthy, safe, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.

So, what role do young people like me have in transforming food systems? At the individual level, we can learn more about nutrition and climate change’s impact on food production. We can try to make healthier food choices by supporting small-scale producers.

But the radical systemic transformation of food systems requires challenging and demanding that the agricultural industry stop extractive practices that destroy natural resources and water. This sector must move away from large single-crop farming and animal production facilities.

It should chart towards sustainable agricultural practices that are rooted in green technology and harmonious with nature. Given the various linkages across the agricultural industry, it is possible that stakeholders can open opportunities for young people to work and move the sector towards a sustainable future.

Even though young people make up 50 % of the population globally and 77% of the population in Africa; we’re a “small” addition to the discussion of food systems and food security. We cannot be touted as leaders of tomorrow as we face challenges of malnutrition, hunger, and climate change today.

Young people need to take up space in these discussions and drive the sustainable food systems agenda. We are knowledgeable. We are capable to lead. We will be heard.

To transform means to create equitable food systems that are gender, age, and socially inclusive. Food systems that ensure nutritional foods are accessible and affordable to all. With youth at the center, we can radically transform our food systems and address the ongoing inequities driving malnutrition, hunger, youth unemployment, environmental degradation, and gender inequality.

African Feminist & Researcher with interest in Water & Health Rights + SRHR &Climate Action in Southern Africa