Food security and the restaurant industry

Menu Briefing

Ask a chef what he or she understands “food security” to be in the context of the daily operations of a restaurant, and you would most likely get a response along the lines of “receiving all produce deliveries in good order and in time to complete the ‘prep’ (the processing of the ingredients for each dish on the restaurant’s menu) well before the first service of the day”.

A relatively small number of middlemen supply ingredients from producers to more than 2 000 restaurants in the Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek area of the Western Cape, South Africa. Chefs jockey to secure the best produce these middlemen are able to source daily, and to take delivery thereof as early as possible in the day – at the very least before the competitor next door or across the street.

Where restaurants are primarily focused on fulfilling the expectations of guests, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations proposes that food security exists “…when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Food insecurity exists where households have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.  This is a troubling issue in poor and developing countries that are especially vulnerable to the harsh effects of climate change on agriculture.

Socio-economics

The General Household Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa in 2015 found that 13.1% of the country’s people were vulnerable to hunger and that 22.8% of all households had inadequate or severely inadequate access to food. Among South Africa’s metropolitan areas, food inadequacy was highest in the City of Cape Town, with 31% of all households experiencing food access problems.

The prevailing socioeconomic conditions in the country are not conducive to reducing food insecurity. South Africa remains one of the most consistently unequal countries in the world, with millions of township residents and poor rural dwellers who continue to be economically marginalised. Unemployment, especially among the young, remains high. The recent decision by two ratings agencies to downgrade the South African government’s sovereign credit rating to junk status is likely to dampen GDP growth and job creation.

It is therefore not without irony that eight of South Africa’s top ten restaurants are located in or around Cape Town, a metropolitan area where the members of almost one in three households go to bed hungry.

Role of restaurants

But, while the day-to-day operational agonies of chefs trying to source the best produce for well-heeled guests seem trivial in comparison with the plight of our most vulnerable communities, I believe that restaurants – from food trucks and corner cafés to fine-dining establishments – have a role to play in alleviating these problems in the long run.

On a macro level, chefs and restaurateurs have the opportunity to act as influencers of and collaborators with suppliers and guests.  An establishment such as Tokara Restaurant hosts some 30 000 guests per year, and our advocacy reach is even wider via social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Many guests may still be unaware of the potential impact that climate change, entrenched inequality and renewed calls for land reform may have on the just-in-time food supply chain we’ve grown accustomed to.  Knowledge and information shared via the advocacy of restaurants may lead to an ever-growing community of restaurant-goers for whom the values of a restaurant may be just as important as what’s on the menu when deciding where to dine.

On an operational level, restaurants should continue to improve measures to reduce food waste and seek out suppliers who share their vision and values.  Over the past ten years, local chefs have formed closed relationships with small-scale farmers and specialist suppliers in an effort to secure the best local and seasonal produce.  Whether such producers are committed to sustainable agricultural practices will increasingly guide purchasing decisions in the years to come.

Sourcing

Restaurants located in affluent rural areas have been at the forefront of establishing extensive vegetable gardens and designing menus around the availability of produce grown on site. The challenge is to transplant these self-sufficiency projects to less affluent and more urban areas. The Institute for Security Studies predicts the country’s population will hit a total of 67.3 million people by 2035, up from about 54 million today, of whom up to 74% are expected to live in cities. Urban farming, urban food co-operatives and technological means to match the supply of suburban hobby vegetable growers with the demand from restaurants may contribute to establishing a sustainable urban produce supply chain.

Lastly, we’ll have to adapt our diets and tastes to the limitations of the arable land available in South Africa. As enormous amounts of resources are required to produce meat and animal products, a primarily plant-based diet may be vital for a sustainable future.

Renewed interest in indigenous foods, including vegetables, tubers and roots, may bolster long-term food security and the upliftment of rural economies.  Add the promise of entomophagy, the practice of eating insects by humans, into the mix and you may soon find chefs competing for the best mopane worms and other sustainably reared creepy crawlies!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or policy of the owners, management or employees of the Tokara Wine Estate.

 

About the author

WilhelmKühn

Wilhelm Kühn (BA, LLB, LLM, EMBA) is a restaurateur and graduate of the Executive MBA programme of UCT’s Graduate School of Business.  Originally a practising international tax lawyer, he opened his first restaurant in 2006. Over the past seven years the bulk of his efforts have been focused on two eateries located on the iconic Tokara Wine Estate outside Stellenbosch.