Food for Thought

Although I have not been cooking and documenting as prolifically as in the past, my interest in food has not waned. One of the focuses of where I work is food, and I have two amazing food colleagues doing very interesting research into food systems, food security and hunger in South Africa and across the global South. At the end of last year, my other organisation, dala, collaborated with food security expert and we put together a public art / performance / game to explore food insecurity in Cape Town under the banner of Serious Fun. The encounter was one of an ongoing series of experiments called Food for Thought that dala is engaging.

The following text and images were taken out of the project report:

“Food for Thought developed out of a desire to explore creative ways of engaging food security in a context where the majority of people are food insecure. The purpose of the game was to engage different constituencies in a game that unpacks the food system in Cape Town. Players were expected to navigate a series of food security issues that are typical in South Africa.

According to Haysom, ‘In the lead up to the serious fun process and particularly to the food for thought, or “playing with your food” I found myself asking a number of questions. Some of these include asking that if food insecurity was such a serious issue, it is visceral and deeply personal – how can we create fun in such a space?’. These concerns underpinned the way the game was designed in order to tread carefully, and this was largely achieved through a sensitivity to the background research.

‘Research in cities in Southern Africa focusing specifically on poor communities found that 77% of poor residents in Southern African cities were food insecure. What this meant in practice is that they were unable to buy, produce or consume food in a manner that met their dietary nutritional or cultural needs.  In Cape Town, despite being seen as a relatively wealthy city when compared to other Southern African cities, 80% of poor households were found to be food insecure. A pervasive trend throughout the cities in the region was limited and declining diversity in diets. In real terms the food insecure were discounting meals, discarding more and more of the key food groups that aid health and nutrition. The default was to foods that are energy dense, generally high starch and high sugar food types. This background then informed the game design and how we approached these issues’ (Haysom).

The game involved the installation of a shopping trolley sculpture on the Grand Parade as ‘both a symbol of and a metaphor for the current modern urban food system’ (Haysom). Attached to the trolleys were a range of food cards. These were situated at different heights according to their cost. Players could hire a ladder to reach luxury items. Players were given a weekly budget according to the 5 broad income groups, and were asked to shop. ACC facilitator and food specialist performed as the cashier and directed a range of food insecurity-related discussions with participants and audiences.

‘The choices, as the research shows, do not follow assumed trends. Emotion, responsibility, roles, etc. all influenced the choices made. One player chose only chocolate and wine, not because this was a dietary need, he was in love and wanted to impress his new partner. The grandmother chose foods that were best for her grandchildren and not necessarily best for herself. Students chose food that didn’t spoil and could be prepared with minimal cooking. These choices reflected strategic thinking but also clear prioritisation, often not determined by nutritional need but by emotion and a number of other factors.

As a game, there was a concern that the players would select foods that they thought they should select – a wide variety of items with good nutritional value – some players did this but other were far more “honest”. In a few instances, the food selected as part of the game was not the food that the players had in their shopping bags – when this was discussed, some of the richest and most energise conversations emerged.

Despite being a game, players took an immense amount of time to design menus in their heads and select the variety of foodstuffs that their budget allowed. This time again reflected reality where as resources are reduced, greater strategic planning takes place around the distribution of these resources

with key trade-offs being made. One participant argued that this is what they do on a weekly basis when they receive their community paper – to identify the specials and plan their week’s food purchases in accordance with their budget.

All these insights and roles that were player out in the game are roles and responses identified in research into the Cape Town and southern African food system. What the game enabled was a mirror to reflect these nuances of the food system in a real and almost immediate way. It stimulated much debate and energy grew as the game progressed. Conceptual theories on the food system that are often locked up in detailed academic debate play out on the City of Cape Town Grand Parade for all to see. The dietary diversity discounting, the emotive choice, the preference for certain traditional foods, the inequality within the food system, the fact that the system was a great deal more than just the food on display, were there for all to see.

These processes emerged through the game, these were not staged. The structure and design of the game, although in some ways determined by a particular understanding of the food system challenges, did not prescribe responses. The playing of the game enabled real and in all cases, immensely honest, responses to emerge through the process.

What was of great interest was that despite the brevity of the food system challenges and the levels of food insecurity, it is argued that the participants had fun, enjoyed their time, were enthused by the process and yet still addressed real issues. This was serious stuff but fun was had by all. From an academic perspective, it is certainly felt that as a methodology to engage with food system issues and speak to a broad audience in a manner the facilitated honest and open feedback and mutual learning, this is an essential tool’.”

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