‘Food is love’

In London and Cape Town, Dee Woods and Stefanie Swanepoel work to make sure healthy food is not only the preserve of the affluent. They share their vision for how to change our food systems for the better with Amy Hall.

Dee Woods first got stuck into food activism after she was suddenly stripped of her disability benefits by the British government. Left raising two young children on very little money she thought that ‘as a community we can do something better than just the food bank’. So she co-founded the Granville Community Kitchen, which has blossomed into a garden, vegetable box scheme and all-round intercultural food hub in South Kilburn, northwest London. Dee is now involved in advocacy at a city, national and international level.

Stefanie Swanepoel is part of an organic farm project run by the ‘kos gangsters’, an all-woman group of farmers from the Ocean View township in Cape Town.1 Since starting up in 2019, the co-operative now grows vegetables like lettuces, tomatoes and beetroot, runs a café out of a renovated chicken coop and a bakery, and has a nursery of seedlings for home growers and gardens of wild food, indigenous medicine and herbs – all out of a 0.6-hectare plot. A writer, researcher and food systems expert, Stef explains how growing crops in Ocean View, ‘one of the most violent communities in South Africa’, helps heal trauma while filling bellies.

Amy Hall: Stef, can you tell me more about what happens on the Ocean View farm, and the ultimate vision?

Stefanie Swanepoel: Ocean View Farm is a beautiful story about women who have succeeded against all odds. It’s a story of all races, all cultures. People have found a point of resonance with this place.

We have allotment parcels – as well as the main farm – which are given over to soup kitchens so they can rely less on donor support. Groups tour our site and about 70 kids come here every day for an after-school club. We’ve hosted workshops on composting, propagating plants, vertical gardens and cooking kelp. Before the latest lockdown we had free yoga sessions and dance classes. There are often festivals. It’s a lot about putting ‘culture’ back into ‘agriculture’ because that’s been stripped out.

Our long-term vision is to turn out radical farmers. We would like people to be able to come for a year and to leave with practical training in sustainable agriculture, going out fully understanding the food system and the levers for change, as well as the practical tools to do that.

Amy: Dee, tell me why you set up Granville Community Kitchen and what happens there.

Dee Woods: Myself and long-time friend Leslie Barson wanted people to access food in dignity. We decided it wasn’t enough just to have a community food-growing garden. People needed to learn about food from seed to plate and beyond.

We need to encourage people to learn new skills and use the knowledge they have. The food bank model is just wrong. You get a bag of not-very-good food, most of it coming from surplus.

Like Ocean View, we set up as a community food hub and training centre. Alongside food aid we do education, training and health and wellbeing support. We have what we call a ‘patchwork farm’ with small plots of land within South Kilburn and we’re hopefully signing on the dotted line for four hectares of land in peri-urban West London so that we can set up our market garden. We’re hoping to start a microdairy as well.

Amy: In your communities what are the barriers to accessing healthy food?

Dee: Right now, there aren’t any affordable shops in the area. You have to walk quite a distance or take a bus. That’s why we wanted to create a new local food economy. South Kilburn is among the 20-per-cent most deprived areas in England, and black and Asian people are the most affected by that poverty, as well as people [such as those from migrant communities] with no recourse to public funds.

Stef: It’s pretty much the same here. The biggest issue in South Africa for access to any food – let alone healthy food – is cost. Poverty levels in Ocean View are high. It’s one of the most food-insecure suburbs in the country. There’s a problem accessing good – healthy, especially organic – food because the shops are mostly takeaways and butcheries [grills]. Even if people make it to the supermarket – getting a minibus taxi can be quite expensive – the food is costly.

Amy: Tell us what ‘culturally appropriate’ food means and why it matters.

Dee: South Kilburn is one of the most diverse areas in Britain with almost 400 languages spoken. We have people from all over the world, largely from the Caribbean, North Africa, East Africa and Eastern Europe – as well as Ireland. People come here because we’re in the belly of the beast – as I call it – with Britain being the motherland of empire and colonialism. People have their own food cultures but often they can’t get hold of their traditional food. And that ‘nutrition transition’ – moving to a European diet – means people get ill: high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes.

Stef: Colonialism has shaped the food system that we live with today and this isn’t explicitly acknowledged. If we look at Africa, colonial overlords changed eating habits when they introduced maize as food for workers. Now pretty much every single African country uses [the availability of] maize as a food security indicator at the national level. Yet maize has far less nutritional value than sorghum, millet or any of the indigenous grains. It’s a ridiculous indicator of food security.

Dee: It’s also about getting young people onto the land again. They need to understand where food comes from: it’s not wrapped up like in the supermarket, it doesn’t come in a tin or a packet. Real food has dirt on it and creepy crawlies.

Amy: You both run veg box schemes that cater for low-income communities. How do they work?

Stef: The boxes are sold in more affluent communities; it’s a surprise box and they can’t choose what’s in it. And that subsidizes the cost of vegetables for people in Ocean View and from the African townships that are down the road. I think that’s fair. That’s trying to reorientate our economy. We also sell bread to the community at a subsidized cost. We bake 1,000 loaves of bread a month for local feeding schemes, supply smaller ‘food-security gardens’ with 300 seedlings a month and give vegetables to a local feeding scheme to the value of R7000 ($486) a month.

Dee: Our model is similar. We have two price points and people self-select where they fit in. Those who can pay more subsidize those who can’t afford to pay full price. We also have a solidarity fund.

It’s also about offering food that is seasonal and local. And we provide a lot of culturally appropriate food, which comes from elsewhere. We are working with some farmers in West Africa. It would be great to source some products from Ocean View – if they were surplus and you had fed your community first.

Amy: Building alternatives is important for you both. Can you tell me more about this?

Stef: I was an activist for many years. But my blood pressure was so high I was almost burnt out. It was the angst and the stress of trying to tear down a system that never seems to be torn down – still isn’t torn down. One of the reasons that I love working at the farm, and with people, is that we are trying to build new systems.

Dee: Exactly the same for me. I’m still doing a bit of challenging those structures but not getting so caught up in it now. We are creating and modelling change, building the world we want to see.

Stef: New systems take time. It’s the unpacking of centuries of colonialism and, in South Africa, apartheid, poverty, intergenerational violence and alcohol abuse. So, it’s not a project that you start and say ‘in two months’ time we will have this’, because you are working with people and all these wounds. It takes years to systematically rebuild a system, if we want it to be inclusive, equitable, beautiful and transformative.

Amy: What food-related organizing or activism are you particularly excited about right now?

Stef: There are some movements that are starting to gain momentum. In South Africa we have an agroecology movement which is about 170-180 organizations, big and small. The only challenge is that we do not all work together and we get caught up in terms – like the difference between ‘biodynamic’ and ‘agroecological’ – and everybody goes into their little silo.

Dee: I’ve been part of trying to revive the food sovereignty movement and make it more inclusive, including by decolonizing our food system. That means taking a really hard look at what we have and peeling back the layers. It’s not going to be pretty but we need to do it because the current global food system is based on oppression, extraction and neo-colonialism. If we don’t change that, nothing will ever change.

Stef: To end apartheid, every single organization had to come together – whether you agreed with each other [on other things] or not. The food system activists of the world need to unite around one call for change… and then we can go back into our corners and fight about the differences.

Dee: I think that call is a human rights call – the idea that food is a commons, that we all have that right to eat and eat well. Food has been a commodity for 500 years but it’s so much more. Food is our life. Food is culture. Food is love.

A word from Ocean View’s farmers
‘Be connected with the soil and the earth and you’ll find peace’1
Nikky Jacobs, co-operative member
‘It’s such a joy to harvest your own food. First-time growers enjoy the fruits of their labour – taking home vegetables that they’ve grown with their own hands’
Sophia Grodes, head farmer
‘I never believed that I would be my own boss and create my own garden. If I come here, I feel happy’1
Carrin Roberts, co-operative member
1Kos gangsters’, YouTube, 14 November 2020