Some further thoughts on urban food security

Food and nutrition security are the focus of the first goal of the ‘Environment’ pillar in our National Sustainable Development Plan. It does not make a specific reference to urban food security. It does use terms such as ‘for all’ to make it clear that the importance of ensuring and improving food security is something that applies to all people, not just those who live in rural areas.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in 2015, I wrote a short article to highlight the issue of food security in urban areas, which took on an increased level of urgency when we were in a post-disaster situation.

My article was essentially a mix of my observations, my opinion and the product of a short period of thinking about what could be done to address the problem that was low cost, easy to do and able to be implemented quickly.

So at the recent Pacific Update held at USP in Fiji, I was keen to hear about research conducted for World Vision to examine the issue of food security in Port Vila. The research was carried out in a number of communities within the Greater Port Vila area and the groups and communities that were involved included customary landowners, people living in formal settlements and people who live in informal settlements. The research, the findings and recommendations are available in a report by Dr Sarah James called Food Security in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

The findings of the research are not particularly surprising and largely reiterate what we already knew. They include the conclusion that a lack of access to land suitable for gardening is the most significant barrier to urban people being able to access fresh, local foods. Also, a lack of time to garden and/or prepare local food was another problem faced by people who live in town.

Among the recommendations from this research were two that I was particularly struck by.

One is the potential for engaging young people in producing and selling food. The report refers to some experience that Wan Smolbag has had in training young people in food preparation during an ‘urban nutrition program’ following TC Pam and the El Nino event in 2015/16. This could prove a good platform to build on.

Plus there are lessons to be learned from elsewhere in the world. For example, the Africa Agriculture Innovation Network provides a combination of training, seed funding, business incubation services and mentoring for young people to start businesses that are focused on the production, processing and sale of food, including in urban and peri-urban areas. As the World Bank noted in a recent blog post on this topic, progress in technology and ICT provide new tools for businesses in countries such as ours. This is one of the advantages for people who live in urban areas - access to the internet and other infrastructure is better than in rural locations.

Another recommendation from the Food Security in Port Vila, Vanuatu report that is significant is the use of intensive gardening to produce food in urban areas.

Even if it is not possible to grow all the food that a family might need in these ways, there are opportunities to at least produce some of what’s required. This can have positive effects in a number of ways. The amount of the household income that needs to be spent on food (whether local or imported) is reduced. Plus the quality of nutrition in the household can be improved by increasing the amount of fresh, local food that is consumed rather than relying more and more on imported, processed products.

All over the world, people who live in towns and cities are finding ways to use small amounts of space to produce their own food. Some of the methods that are used elsewhere in the world may not be the best fit for urban households and communities here in Vanuatu. And others may require an investment in education and training around new crops, different gardening or farming methods, and unfamiliar methods of processing and/or preparation.

There is more work to be done by government, businesses, civil society organisations and communities to explore how we in Vanuatu can take on board the importance of this issue and then develop new ways of thinking and doing to tackle it.

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