“The Food Dialogues are critically important because they provide a rare opportunity for citizens and other stakeholders to learn from grassroots activists alongside government officials, university professors, and business people. Only by connecting these different perspectives and knowledges will we able to foster meaningful change in our food systems.” [Prof. Julian May, Director, DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, University of Cape Town]
The Journey towards Food
 Kurt, you are executive manager of the SA Urban Food & Farming Trust, but looking down your resume this is not an area you were always working in – I see energy and climate change, strategy and communications, digital business consultancy. Can you talk to us a little bit about some of the journey that led you to food?
Cooking and eating was always at the background of those [laughs], but no, not the food system. I cut my teeth working with technology. I grew up with the internet before it was a thing. My father was a professor, I worked for the Computer Science Department when I went to school – university. I was able to code and that sort of thing but I found myself more interested in what people could do with the technology than developing it itself and so I moved more into what is generally called consulting, sort of strategy and opportunity.
Technology was a driver of change, and what I realised over time, is that there are lots of different drivers of change, so from globalisation to sustainability to all sorts of change. And that was the space where I spent most of twenty years, advising different kinds of organisations on how to deal with that – how to deal with risk, how to deal with opportunity, how to plan for it, how to position themselves… then probably the second decade of that was working on Consistence Problems so that’s where energy, climate change, resource use – these are things where government or public sector has an obligation, but not a lot of power, you know, not a lot of control, so how can they get involved and influence the behaviour of the system, or take risk out, without having anything like adequate resources to do it?
And I found that very interesting and rewarding and important work and I got comfortable in that space. So how does one work with partners, with residents, with other kinds of organisations that have common interests for the currents of life or whatever is going on, and try and shift things? So that became my area of activity.
I sort of accidentally became involved in food systems because, after my wife and I had a son, about eleven years ago, we started looking around at where we lived and we felt like we didn’t really want to raise a child in the kind of community context where we found ourselves. We found ourselves looking around at our typical sort of affluent landscape which is walls and wires and spikes and armed response and cameras and all of that and we just didn’t want to raise a child in that context where there are six or seven children on the street that are his age and none of them played together, none of them go to the same schools.
So starting a food garden down the road from where we lived was really an attempt to find a village in a city. You know, like-minded people who were also hungry for that kind of connection, looking for a space and a way and a reason to do it. And so just about ten years ago I was one of the founders of the Oranjezicht City Farm and the response from people was unbelievable, kind of the pent up interest in this kind of thing and the opportunities it makes possible and that really got me thinking of the potential of food as a fulcrum or leverage to change certain things, not just in the community I happened to live in, which is affluent and leafy and single-dwelling residential kind of landscape and historic and so on. But as we were engaging then in other communities, realising that food is a powerful medium to work with, not the Chefy kind of stuff which is also important, but the food system – where we get our food, how we get our food, how we make our choices, what’s available to us, what the nutrition is – and that really was the start of a journey into food as a full-time.
So I essentially stopped my consulting, took an eighty-percent pay cut and started working as my own client. And I’ve been at that full-time for like six or seven years.
 I see that you were the co-founder, general manager, director and chairperson of the Oranjezicht City Farm which later merged into the SA Urban Food & Farming Trust. That feels like a move from a specific centralised space to a more open national endeavour. Can you share what that transition looked like?
The Oranjezicht City Farm very much started in one particular community by a group of residents as volunteers and focused on the particular heritage of that site initially. And we started under the wing of our local Neighbourhood Watch because we didn’t have a bank account, any of the local structure and they were great. They were like ‘Get going, do your own thing and then set up your own structure when you’re ready’.
Then we did that and we had a discussion with the volunteers because we were set up as a totally flat organisation and we talked about what do we set up as a legal entity because some people were very much focused on this particular project and community and piece of ground, and others saw the potential to take what we were doing and have a broader impact. And the resolution of the volunteers was really to set up two entitities – one that was focused on the local and the specific, and one that was trying to take that kind of understanding and resources capabilities and working to make a difference in communities where there’s more need, greater vulnerability and so on.
Then of course time passes and things change and we founded this little Farmer’s Market, that took off like a rocket, and became almost impossible to keep up with. The demand and the interest was massive. And we started it on a couple of hay bales in the park adjacent to the Oranjezicht City Farm without a plan, because the volunteers who were coming out, wanted to harvest but we had planted like three weeks earlier and so we had nothing to harvest.
And so some of the volunteers who were working at other organic farms brought us a bunch of spinach or a box of grapes or whatever and donated that so we could sell it to earn a few Rands. Then someone brought a coffee machine and someone brought some snacks and before we knew it we needed something to put over the couple of tables because of the wind and the sun. So we had three tables and then ten tables and before we knew it there were a thousand people coming every Saturday into this tiny little park and then you couldn’t park anywhere and eventually we got kicked out of that park.
But it was because there was so much interest. We wound up surprisingly on the lawn of the Premier for a number of months, which is quite a strange thing, but we knew it was temporary, and we eventually found a home down at the V & A Waterfront where the marketplace is today. Just before we left the park and the pandemic happened, there were something like between 900 and 2000 people coming to that park on a weekend for that market. And so just the rate of growth was mad. And the market was buying from about 35 local smallholder farmers to supply just the fruit and veg side of things.
So it became like grabbing the Tiger by the tail and it was pulling us in different directions. One is to this consumer retail space where we were working with farmers and we’re trying to change understanding and purchasing behaviour and support artisanal food-makers; and the other was working through food and farming to build social cohesion within communities, bring people together, build connections in and between communities, which isn’t really about the food, whereas the Farmer’s Market is very much about the food. So we wound up, because of the level of activity and because the market was paying the bills, we wound up essentially running a market, when it’s not really what we set out to do. We also learned so much from making about every mistake you could make as we went along.
Eventually we figured out that we just had to let the market fly on its own and that’s what we did, end of 2017. And it ended up being sold to one of the original founders. And that’s been a really good relationship over the last four years and we work very closely together but it’s a different entity that is run independently, and that allowed us to get back to focus on our mission.
Food Dialogues 2021
 Which brings us to this month-long event – the Food Dialogues Event – What is the Theme and Purpose of this Event? And the thinking behind making it a whole month of activity?
The Food Dialogues really started in 2014. As we’d gotten to spend a number of years with the Oranjezicht City Farm and the Market, we had gotten to know all sorts of amazing people and we just wanted to bring them together to talk to each other, share more about what they were doing and see where there was a fit, common areas of interest where we can share perspectives on what food systems are all about and issues and challenges and so on. It was quite self-indulgent cos we met all these people and were like come let’s talk and break bread and make soup and it was really very cool. And then we struggled to get back to it for a couple of years.
Fast forward to last year and then we had plans to do it and then the Pandemic sets in and we were like, ‘Now what do we do?’ and so we pushed out with a Virtual engagement which was very interesting.
It really has been a conscious effort of ours to bring a diversity of voices into the conversation about the food system, because what we found is that, no surprise, the people with power get the say. They get the voice, they get the seat at the table, they get the influence and whatever the intentions are of those whoa re the policy makers, they listen to the ones that they can hear if I can put it that way. So if someone is intentionally trying to manipulate the system or not, whatever the intention is, the structure of the thing is that those who own the brands, own the retail, own the big farms, organise, are resourced, are heard. One doesn’t need to look very deeply to see that’s problematic, both in terms of power dynamic and in terms of what our food system needs.
The interests of those in power, you know, yes it’s important, but the food system they are custodians of, or are profiting from, or are employed by, that system is broken and harmful. So clearly just having their voice in the discussion is inadequate. Not that they are bad people, not necessarily, but it’s just, it’s not enough. So we were really trying to use all the platform we had and all the networks and so on to diversify who is listened to and have more of an even platform with that.
So last year was our chance to kind of make up for several years of not having done this. So we had this epic Food Dialogues where we had five themes [including Food in Crisis, Food and the Economy, Food and Culture, Food and Health]; we had 28 speakers and moderators; we had 16 hours of recorded dialogue; 51 sessions; we had almost a 1000 people participating; it was massive! And we had enough money to get a proper report put together of the event that consolidated and drew connections between everything and came up with some recommendations and a resource guide. And that was really quite amazing!
Also we stretched it out by having prerecorded talks by many of the speakers. So the idea was that by the time everyone came together they should theoretically have listened to a lot of the conversations and then when everyone shows up for the real-time engagement we can assume that they are up to speed. So that we can get to the good stuff and actually have a dialogue. And that worked really really well.
This year what we did was something a bit different. This year is the UN Food Systems Summit happening globally at around the same time and so we wanted to be connected in some way to that. So our focus this year was really a shift to again try to diversify voices, but also move away from this ‘expert’-driven dialogue because in some ways we are all experts. We all eat! We each have our experience of the food system.
So we went out with something that we called Local Voices and we went out and found people, looking at the demographic diversity, geographic diversity, other kinds of variation within Cape Town’s population and had 10 interviews with people across all walks of life and ages and so on. We edited down to 6 to 10 minutes and that’s what we started releasing two weeks ago, one per week day, for two weeks prior to today’s real-time panel discussion. And today’s discussion was then with 3 of those 10 in real-time conversation with the moderator. So again this approach of getting people up to speed in their own time, giving them this pre-recorded stuff and then come together and now let’s have the conversation.
We have this thing called Dialogues through Food where we want the food to do the talking. We’d hoped that we could have plates of food prepared that we could share and then look at the food and say, “What’s on this plate? Where does it come from? Who prepared it? Why is it a plate and not a bowl? What are you eating with?” – you know, all these kinds of things – “What does that mean” “How does this connect us to each other?” “How is it different?” So through the food really unpacking our connections to one another and our food culture.
So we had to come up with a way of doing that virtually which we’re doing tomorrow [22nd September, 10am] where we have 3 chefs who are each bringing a home-cooked plate of food virtually to the table, where they are essentially doing the same thing. Saying, “This is what I cook, these are the ingredients and this is where I sourced them from or how I got it and why I cooked it this way and how I learned to cook it and who I, would serve this to and what it means to me” and then the three chefs will also reflect on one another’s.
In the food space we are often enamoured by the Foodie Culture. And the Foodie Culture can be quite exclusive. Not that one shouldn’t celebrate talent and kind of aesthetic refinement and so on, but becomes an exclusive club. As opposed to Food Culture which connects all of us and one can participate in that in a very humble way or in a very elite way, but the underlying food culture is about seasonality, it’s about ingredients, it’s about shared history and heritage, not that everything is the same but there are connections between them.
And if we focus on our Food Culture then the Foodie Culture doesn’t become either a guilty pleasure or something to hide or something to stay away from, cos we need this kind of experimental leading-edge sort of Chefery, but let’s not put it in a place where it doesn’t really belong, on too high a pedestal. We should be celebrating the seasons and the ingredients and the soil and those kinds of things first.
So the Dialogues of Food is kinda leading us into that and we’re hoping that we can do that with some real food in the future. And we also put a call out for people to send in their own version of this. So share your own virtual plate of food, which I think would be really great if people are willing to do it. It’s what a lot of people do on Twitter or Instagram anyway. So if they just do that and include some thoughts on how this is part of their food culture and they kind of use the hashtag or tag us at Food Dialogues then we will curate that as a bit of a mosaic of how people are engaging with the food culture and hope to continue this conversation after the panel discussion.
So Food Dialogues is very much about coming together, before and after having this participatory component, cos it’s not just 2 or 3 days a year. We want people to be engaging more than that.
Then the last thing we are doing a couple of weeks later – so as not to let the UN Food Summit just come and pass – we wanted to ask the question: Why should we care? We’re far away in the bottom of Africa and here are all these elite people from around the world doing this thing virtually with the heads of huge organisations and the big money people and here we are talking with community kitchens in Delft – What does this have to do with anything? And that’s really the question. Not a critique of the UN Food Summit, but what is the relationship between these big global things and what we’re going through? Not just Cape Town, but any local scale. Because our local food systems are also contested, are those the same fault lines? Is the same fate going to be ours? You know where people are going to protest?
So that’s really the question: What is this Global/Local dynamic? And we timed it to be after the Summit which is happening this week, and also close to the occasion of World Food Day, which is on the 16th of October. The World Food Day is when we have released the Food Dialogues report in the previous two occasions. We will release a sort of Highlights Video of all the other stuff on that day as well. We will also be having a live panel discussion on that day and this is where the ‘experts’ do come in, but we’ve got come interesting experts who are going to talk about what’s happening on the ground in Cape Town, locally based academics who are feeding into these processes but aren’t in the room and then people on an African and a Global scale who can give us a bit of different levels of scale when we have the conversation. This includes some people who are on the ground working in community kitchens, who themselves are from those communities participating in some of this engaged scholarship and so the activist research. That will be moderated by the Director of the National Centre of Excellence on Food Security, Julian May.
How does the Public get involved?
 What is the best way for people to get involved at this time?
There is the event tomorrow [22nd September, 10am] with the three chefs and the one on the 14th of October which they can tune in to. They can also go back on the same Fooddialogues.info platform for replays of everything that has taken place to far. It’s free, they can register and watch whatever they want and share that. It’s going to be there for a while.
But beyond those, there are two ways for them to be actively involved. The one I spoke about which is sharing their own plate of food virtually. The other is also sharing their own food story. They can, as with the local voices interviews, record themselves with video sharing a story of their own experience and send that to us. So the one sharing is aligned with the first panel discussion and the other is aligned with the second one. If people want to tell the stories from their childhood, how roasting mielies or cooking dim sum or learning to fold a taco or giving food to the neighbour, you know whatever it is that means something to them, that’s beautiful and we’d love to hear that.
And similarly if they want to bring their virtual plate of food and say, “This is what I love to cook; this is how and why this is my engagement with our food culture”, that’s also beautiful. We’d love for them to do that. And then keep an eye out for next year because we are hoping there will be opportunities to do the Food Dialogues with actual food next time around.
What can we look forward to?
 As you look to the future, do you see this event becoming a regular on the calendar. Are there any dreams or hopes you have that weren’t able to make it to this year’s event that we might see in the future?
We do want to have a discussion about Alternative Food Retail next year which is just a fancy way of talking about Food Buying Clubs and Farmer’s Markets and Spaza shops and Hawkers, you know buying directly from farmers or fisherfolk, forraging, all these other ways that people get access to food. We really want to talk about that and does that work and how can we do that? There are amazing examples of community-owned cooperatives that have their own retail where people are members, another variation of these food-buying clubs, but it’s a physical grocery store for example. And we want to unpack that cos that’s really peoples’ power and it’s their option and what are some great examples, and so we want to dive into that.
Then also we would love to eat some food together!
We would also love to have some ways of doing some kind of match-making or speed dating or linking up artisanal food producers with farmers and others who make these things for more economic opportunity and improving livelihoods. Where they can sort of exchange. So let’s get together but let’s do some business. Let’s support each other. How do we do that? So we really want to figure out ways of making that practical. We don’t want to do a Consumer Expo, you know where rich people come in and buy the latest kind of ergonomic grip can opener or whatever. But we do want to kind of help people with their businesses, connecting them, and so we’re going to try and figure that out.
So maybe not all of that next year, but that’s really what is on the agenda. And if people have other ideas of things they think would make sense, we would love to know.