As part of my PhD research on the lived experiences of food sourcing among low-income Zimbabweans living in Johannesburg, Mathew told me during an interview:
His comment demonstrates how one of the recurring themes in my interviews, cultural food preferences, intersects with people’s food environments. As is argued in the Food Environment Working Group’s technical brief, food environment research in low and middle-income countries must focus more on the personal perceptions that shape people’s decisions on what they consume. My research shines a light on how tastes, desires, attitudes, culture, knowledge and skills (the ‘desirability’ dimension according to the technical brief) relate to people’s food environments. In this blog post, I briefly highlight some of my findings in relation to my research.
Longing for Zimbabwean food
As I already mentioned, in my exchanges with participants about where and how they acquire their food, it became clear that finding typical Zimbabwean food was important. For most participants, Zimbabwean food encompasses different types of (dried) green leafy vegetables, pulses, insects (e.g. Mopane worms), wild fruits, grains such as millet and rapoko, and bones and offals. Words such as ‘simple, original, pure, natural, raw, real, healthy, rural’ were mainly used to describe Zimbabwean food.
Participants frequently source Zimbabwean food because it contributes to a sense of belonging and evokes memories of the past. It is also a way to perform their Zimbabwean identity towards others and share common cultural experiences and understandings. Furthermore, many participants want, or even feel they need to, preserve their cultural heritage. Cravings for Zimbabwean food also partially stem from an aversion to South African food, which tastes too much like chemicals. Many participants were concerned about the repercussions of this ‘fake’ food on their body and health.
The corporate food system and food preferences
The ‘natural food’ that Zimbabweans are looking to acquire is different from what their food environment readily offers them. My interviews demonstrate that the corporate food system and its spatial ramifications in the Johannesburg inhibit the participants to eat their preferred food. The corporate food system in South Africa is characterised by industrialised production, excessive processing, mass distribution and globalised trade, along with processes of trade liberalisation, privatisation, state deregulation and corporate self-regulation (Greenberg 2017). Against this backdrop, the ‘natural food’ that Zimbabweans are looking for has become part of an expensive organic niche market (see also: Guthman 2003).
For convenience, cost and food safety reasons, the majority of participants preferred to shop in supermarkets. In that environment, the food that they were able to afford tastes, according to them like ‘water, fat, spices, chemicals, injections and fertiliser’. In addition, as standardisation is most profitable, the corporate food system is structured around dominant palates and does not cater for Zimbabweans’ food preferences, as Mathew’s quote illustrates.
Another way that the corporate food system manifests itself in participants’ lives is through the unequal division of food outlets that sell safe food products in the city. As profit dictates where supermarkets choose to locate, low-income areas are not always an attractive option to sell the more valuable and high-quality foodstuffs. Tendai told me:
“Rich people have their own area. In our area, they sell expired foods. They are grading us.”
Looking beyond the corporate food system
Furthermore, highly processed and energy-dense food products are also sold by informal convenience shops (spaza shops) or street vendors. These are the places where many participants shop on their route from work or at times when they can’t manage to do their (bi)weekly bulk shopping at the supermarket. Even fresh produce in the informal sector ‘tastes like money’ one participant said referring to the taste of fertilisers. He added:
“It’s all about producing a lot in a short time to make fast money”.
Considering that informal business owners are trying to make a living in circumstances where they have been economically and socially undervalued and marginalised, do they have a choice to run their business differently? This shows that the political economy of a country also influences food environments of its inhabitants.
On a similar note, it is equally important to recognise that different combinations of residential segregation, socioeconomic inequality, unemployment, low levels of state protection, inadequate basic social services, inequities in law enforcement, the need to send remittances along with xenophobia, corruption, inefficiency and brutality also constrain Zimbabweans’ ability to source their preferred foods.
Creativity and inventiveness in food acquisition
Yet, we should not overlook participants’ agency in navigating the aforementioned socio-political structures that shape their food environments. High-quality food with a natural taste or specific Zimbabwean products can be obtained through creativity, inventiveness and concerted effort. Urban agriculture and sharing its produce, convincing farm employer’s to grow Zimbabwean crops, cross-border trade, finding specific shops are all strategies for participants to consume their preferred foods.
My findings show that even though the food environment in Johannesburg provides a fertile ground for a nutrition transition, many resist, when possible, and certainly resent this development. In this way my data counters the view that urban Africa is set to follow a one-dimensional trajectory towards a fast food love affair.
Written by Sara Brouwer