ROAD TRIP: Leonie Joubert spent three weeks on the road interviewing subjects.  Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
ROAD TRIP: Leonie Joubert spent three weeks on the road interviewing subjects. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

TO MOST of us "food security" is about having access to enough safe and nutritious food, with the inevitable ominous subtext being that the world’s future food needs cannot be met by present levels of production. But in The Hungry Season: Feeding Southern Africa’s Cities (Picador Africa), the Cape Town-based science writer and journalist Leonie Joubert reveals there’s a great deal more to it.

Food security is not, she says, just about "how to optimise calories per hectare", but also about what we do with those calories. It’s about why, when a country appears to produce enough food to sustain its population, it is inaccessible to many. But food security is not just about the hunger and malnutrition that comes with unemployment and poverty, but also that which is hidden behind veils of prosperity and comfort.

Described at the launch late last year by author and criminologist Don Pinnock as "part travel writing, part science writing and part investigative journalism", The Hungry Season examines what food security means to eight different sets of people, most of whom are families, in eight different urban settings across Southern Africa.

Having researched the subject for several years, Joubert and photographer Eric Miller embarked on a road trip from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape, into the Free State and Lesotho, and on to Durban. They travelled to Swaziland before heading west to Pretoria and then southwest to De Aar before returning to Cape Town.

In the Eastern Cape, Joubert and Miller had tea with former teacher Winnie Maneli to find what happens when families exchange traditional diets for modern, westernised food. They visited the Scheepers family on their farm in the eastern Free State to see what happens at the top of the food chain, because that has implications for everyone else.

They met Thabiso and Mapheello Qhasane in Lesotho to see how resources flow between the workplace and home of a migrant labourer, and examined the correlation between diet and diabetes with the Lingah family in Durban.

In Swaziland, they spent a few days with Mazondo Ncongwane and his family, who pick through a landfill for food or items to sell for recycling. Some days, all this provides is a mug of sugared water.

The two also visited Cornelia Terblanche and her partner, Kobus van der Westhuizen, in the "white squatter camp" of Sonskynhoekie, 12km north of Pretoria, to find out how they scrape together enough to feed themselves "living off the fiscal grid". And, in Malaykamp outside De Aar, which has one of the highest reported rates of foetal alcohol syndrome, they examined childhood stunting and malnutrition.

"Logistically, the trip required levels of organisation I didn’t know I was capable of," says Joubert. "We’d planned our route meticulously, set up interviews well in advance, and had to stick to the schedule within the three-week travelling period to make it work. It was exhausting."

But, although the interviews and photography were packed into a tight schedule, the book was actually about five years in the making and required extensive research.

She had just completed her second book, Boiling Point: People in a Changing Climate, when she overheard geographers talking about food security and what it meant to people living in and around cities: "I was interested and began thinking about the subject and how I could tell the story. I enjoyed the process I’d used in Boiling Point, in which I examined how climate change had affected individual lives. I interviewed five people (a rooibos tea farmer in the Northern Cape, a rock lobster fisherman in Lambert’s Bay, a farmer in the Free State, a political refugee in Pietermaritzburg and a sangoma in Limpopo) and linked their stories to peer-reviewed science about global warming. I decided I’d like to do something similar around food security, and began trawling the literature and identifying issues to focus on."

Joubert spent more than two years researching the project and trying to come up with funding — "Something like this needs time. It’s a long, slow and methodical process, and you need a bit of money to do it" — before the University of Cape Town’s Centre of Criminology opened its doors to her and helped her obtain funding from the Open Society Foundation for SA and the Embassy of Finland.

Criminology might seem an unlikely backer for a book on food security, but among the issues the centre looks at is the creation of safer urban communities. The premise is that people who live in secure communities (which includes access to healthy food) are less likely to turn to crime to survive than those who live in abject poverty. Among the things the centre champions in this regard is the development of urban food gardens.

"I knew by then I wanted to look at the transition from traditional to a more modern western-style of eating, waste, diet-related diseases, childhood malnutrition and so on, and I knew I wanted the book to be as representative of the country as possible. So, I stuck a map of SA on the wall of my lounge, wrote all the themes I’d identified on cards and started to cluster them across the country. Once I’d decided on the cities and areas I wanted to visit, I set about finding families."

This wasn’t easy. She contacted journalists in each area and asked them to act as fixers and, in some cases, translators. Some were better than others at finding the kind of families she wanted to interview, and effectively communicating the objectives of the book.

"There was, inevitably, some scepticism and mistrust among some of our subjects when we met them. They weren’t sure what we were after and, because (as dictated by the ethics of research and journalism) there was nothing in it for them, it took us a while to explain what we wanted to do. Fortunately, we eventually succeeded."

Joubert has been writing about environmental issues for 10 years. She was a Ruth First Fellow in 2007, listed in the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans You Must Take To Lunch in 2008, SAB Environmental Journalist of the Year (print/internet category) in 2009, and received two Honorary Sunday Times Alan Paton Non-Fiction Awards (in 2007 and 2010). In other words, she has a reputation, particularly in the environmental genre of journalism. The enthusiastic and wide-ranging response she’s received to The Hungry Season is, however, unprecedented.

"I think it’s been good because people engage with the food crisis in a way they don’t with the climate crisis. There’s something more primal about how people engage with food. They are more connected to it. It’s very cultural, ideological."

Perhaps. But there’s more to it than that. The Hungry Season tells the story of a cross-section of Southern Africa we’ve not heard before. Joubert and Miller go where no other writer and photographer have been before: into kitchens and stomachs, many of which are more often empty than not.