What do we mean, the food system is broken?

 What do we mean, the food system is broken?

Nolu Dube-Cele: struggling to build a black supply chain and source the ingredients she needs to make the food of her childhood.

And is there anything you and I can do towards fixing it?

Most people, when they think about food, don’t think about it as a system, points out Kurt Ackermann, CEO of the SA Urban Food and Farming Trust. Instead, we think of one or other aspect of food – grocery shopping, what’s for supper, a restaurant we’ve heard about.

But it is a system, one that starts with means of production, and proceeds through processing and distribution before food ends up at the consumption end, on our plates. And the system is broken. In brief:

  • Producers are stuck with a system geared to pile-it-high/sell-it-cheap fruit and vegetables/ meat and fish, with scant reference to the varying costs of production – droughts, floods, diseases, electricity supply. It’s a system that, therefore, encourages industrial-scale production and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, hormones and intensive farming rather than the regenerative and quality-focused farming practices which, ultimately, are what sustainability demands of us. Smaller farmers and fishers who try to exercise sustainable practices are negatively prejudiced.
  • Processors – butchers, manufacturers, canning and bottling factories – mitigate risks by ramping up any process which makes food safe to eat and allows it to last longer, largely irrespective of the impact of these processes on the food’s underlying nutritional value, for instance, or the externalised costs of packaging.
  • Distributors, who deal with supply chain challenges and the impact of loadshedding on the cold chain, are for many producers their only channel to market. The power relationship is therefore such that they can, to a large extent, set prices. To build their own businesses, and mindful of price sensitivities among the end buyers, distributors keep prices as low as they possible can, which pushes margin-cutting all the way back along the value chain. Again, it is independent producers who have fixed costs and little wiggle room, who are prejudiced.

As consumers, we are tragically separated from all of this. Quite aside from tropes about children who think milk comes from plastic bottles and fish fingers from the freezer, mostly, we may not really know, or may not care, what we’re eating or how it got to our plates. What we mostly care about is that it deals with the physical and emotional hungers we bring to eating.


There are social implications as small producers lose their ability to make a living off what they produce.

There are profound issues of humanity in how we treat livestock.

Environmentally, industrialised farming is a disaster.

These considerations aside, the broken food system is negatively impacting the nation’s health. We are simultaneously overfed and undernourished. We have normalised over-processed and nutritionally compromised food in our everyday eating, resulting in significant health challenges. Small children may be stunted, lethargic and have learning challenges from their very formative years; from teenagerhood onwards, there are high levels of obesity. Diabetes, heart disease and hypertension are common, as are the everyday aches, pains, coughs and sniffles of immune-compromised bodies struggling with inflammation, and lacking the vitamins, minerals, fibre, even the hydration that are the foundations of health.

Kurt, speaking at the V&A Waterfront Neighbourfood Exchange gathering held at Maker’s Landing, was reporting back on Food Dialogues 2023 and looking forward to the 2024 edition of this now 10-year-old series. The goal of Food Dialogues (to be renamed Food Indaba, but that’s the subject for another day) is to  foster a healthier, more resilient, and just food system. That’s a shared goal: we know the food system is deeply complex, and it is only through a lot of sometimes difficult conversations and explorations that we can begin to find our way back to social and environmental justice, and to a more resilient system that supports health and wellbeing.

Our commitment is to hold the complexity of the system,” says Kurt.


“It is too complicated to take on all at once,” Kurt added, “yet we can’t simplify it.” Which makes it difficult for each of us, as we go about our daily lives, to know what the “right” choices are.

Most of us operate only on the consumption end of things: we shop, we cook, we go to the occasional  restaurant. Our strongest impact, if we seek to nudge the food system to a healthier, more just and sustainable place, is thus to vote with our wallets – to support the good as much as we can, and to ask questions at the butcher, fish counter and of our waiter that let them know we care about the provenance of our food.

Because we don’t necessarily know when “organic” and “free range” are just greenwashing. How do we know what seafood is sustainably harvested, and what is contributing to the slow death of the ocean ecosystem? Can we trust supermarkets’ claims about supporting small farmers?

The Dialogues/Indaba programme brings together thought leaders and people who are wrestling with these question, and leading conversations about it, while attendees cook together, eat together, join in those conversations, and go on eye-opening, soul-enriching walking tours. Ultimately, the programme is about getting people to think more deeply, to see the system, and to connect with what they themselves can or want to do to default to being more part of the solution. As always, the more we find out, the more we appreciate the complexity – this is a rare opportunity to spend time with people who really care, and thus can be proper allies in the journey of discovery.


Also on the Neighbourfood Exchange programme was Nolu Dube-Cele, chef and owner of Seven Colours Eatery at Battery Park in the Canal District of the V&A Waterfront, who delivered a keynote and participated in a panel discussion.

“I am my ancestors’ wildest dream,” she said: coming from the rural Eastern Cape, and now owning a restaurant – and making a considerable splash with it – in a chic part of a city like Cape Town was beyond imagining. But she remains deeply rooted: she is on a mission to make the food of her people accessible to a public that would otherwise never experience it. Seven Colours Eatery is about celebrating the culture of her roots.

However, that’s not easily done, she says. “It’s a crisis that we don’t have access to the products that black South Africa has grown up with”. And so she is striving to build a supply chain dominated by black suppliers or, as she puts it, is “reframing a narrative that has been rendered invisible for hundreds of years”.

In addition to sourcing the ingredients she needs to make the authentic cuisine she serves, Nolu is also committed to supporting people from her own community. When she left her home to come to Cape Town, the wind under her wings was a Biblical message from her mother: “Unto whom much is given, much is expected.” Through her talents, gifts and resources, she was tasked to open doors, and bridge gaps across which others might travel.

But she’s finding herself immensely frustrated in this quest: “I cannot get black suppliers of meat, milk, fresh fruit and veg. As a black business, I cannot support my own community.” Running a restaurant is a demanding, time-consuming job, “and it is logical that someone like myself might do the easy thing, and go to UltraLiquors which has everything I need, rather than going to three small suppliers.”

It’s a classic example of the self-perpetuating nature of the broken supply chain – it is absolutely understandable that buyers choose convenience. But, Nolu concedes, the only way past this is to be intentional. “The challenge for a start-up [food and drinks supplier] is that they often have to go into competition with established suppliers who might have existing relationships, and a better price.

“Businesses that are established have a responsibility to get past this and use smaller suppliers. The system is capitalist, but we have to be socially-minded too. Because society affects us,” she says. “We are trying to heal a nation.”

From the floor, Danny Dilberto from Ladles of Love reinforced Nolu’s message through describing one the challenges with which the NPO wrestles. One of its programmes involves facilitating access to market for local farmers who, as described earlier in this article, cannot compete at price level with pile-it-high supermarkets. Another challenge is that farmers, seeking to maximise income, gravitate towards fast-growing, high-yield crops. For less reliable crops, they can’t sustain infrastructure as plastic, irrigation and fencing are stolen as soon as they’re installed. This limits the variety community farmers are able to offer, making it hard for buyers and restaurants who seek more varied produce to support them; and it also leads to a glut of certain products at harvest time, impacting the price buyers expect to pay.

“The route to market is chaotic for these farmers,” Danny said, so Ladles of Love purchased cold-storage technology which allows the NPO to act as an aggregator to ease some of the challenges. Other measures Ladles of Love has taken include framing the purchase of these crops as an act of social responsibility; and working with a third-party organisation, Harvest of Hope, to help with delivery logistics. However, every link in the chain perforce must apply a small mark-up to cover their costs, which adds to the price differential between the industrial-scale producers and the small-scale producers.


The right to adequate food is recognised as a human right both nationally and globally. It’s linked to the right to life and dignity. Yet an estimated 13,8 million South Africans live below the food poverty line, which is currently R760 per person per month, or R25 a day.

This is an outrage and a tragedy; and it’s not something that any of us, in our individual capacity can usefully engage with. Like the SA Food and Farming Trust, Ladles of Love and Harvest of Hope, there are many civil society, public sector and private sector organisations working to address both the system and the impact of poverty.

But to fix this, the whole system needs to be addressed. And those of us who can afford to, have a real and urgent responsibility to not take the easy way out. We need to be thoughtful about where we shop, the provenance of our food; we need to do what we can to support small and ethical producers. We need to live our lives, but it’s incumbent on us to live those lives as lightly as possible. It’s a given that those of us who are “haves” will always be consuming more than our fair share, more than the “have nots”. But we can do so humility, gratitude, and thoughtfulness.