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Posts tagged ‘migration’

Eat the Rich

Today’s City Press includes a fantastically interesting article about the increased incidence of obesity in post-1994 South Africa. The piece explores the links between the country’s transition to democracy and the fact that 61% of all South Africans – 70% of women over the age of 35, 55% of white men 15 years and older, and a quarter of all teenagers – are obese or overweight.

The reasons for these incredibly high levels of obesity are, as the article acknowledges, complex. In many ways, South Africa conforms to a pattern emerging throughout the developing world. In a report published a few months ago, the World Health Organisation noted that lifestyle-related diseases – like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity – are now among the main causes of death and disease in developing nations. These diseases of affluence are no longer limited to the West.

For the new South African middle classes, fast food and branded processed products, like Coke, are markers of sophistication: of having ‘made it’ in this increasingly prosperous society. But, as in the rest of the world, those at the top of the social scale tend not to be overweight:

contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a ‘rich man’s disease’.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says [Prof Salome] Kruger, that ‘the highest income earners are thinner’.

For urban dwellers who earn less, fresh food is usually more difficult, and expensive, to buy than processed non-food:

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

‘R15!’ It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

We call these areas where access to fresh food is limited, ‘food deserts’. It’s entirely possible to buy fruit, vegetables, and free-range meat in South African cities, but high prices and bad transport infrastructure limit people’s ability to purchase these products.

We’re dealing, effectively, with the effects of mass urbanisation since the ending of influx control in the mid-1980s and the 1994 elections.

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from ‘traditional foods to fast foods’.

But this isn’t the first time that South Africa, or indeed other countries, has had to cope with the impact of urbanisation on people’s diets. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused agricultural workers to abandon farming in their droves, and to move to cities in search of employment, either in factories or in associated industries. In Britain, this caused a drop in the quality of urban diets. Food supplies to cities were inadequate, and the little food that the new proletariat could afford was monotonous, meagre, and lacking in protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the effects of this inadequate diet was a decrease in average height – one of the best indicators of childhood health and nutrition – among the urban poor in Victorian cities. In fact, British officers fighting the South African War (1899-1902) had to contend with soldiers who were physically incapable of fighting the generally fitter, stronger, and healthier Boer forces, most of whom had been raised on diets rich in animal protein.

This link between industrialisation, urbanisation, and a decline in the quality of city dwellers’ diets is not inevitable. For middle-class Europeans in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, industrialised transport and food production actually increased the variety of food they could afford. In the United States, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a burgeoning food industry benefitted poorer urbanites as well. Processed food was cheap and readily available. Impoverished (and hungry) immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy were astonished by the variety and quantity of food they could buy in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.

It’s difficult to identify similar patterns in South Africa. We know that the sudden growth of Kimberley and Johannesburg after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1882) stimulated agriculture in Griqualand West and the South African Republic. Farmers in these regions now supplied southern Africa’s fastest growing cities with food. The expansion of Kimberley and Johannesburg as a result of the mineral revolution was different from that of London or New York because their new populations were overwhelmingly male – on the Witwatersrand, there were roughly ninety men for every woman – and highly mobile. These immigrants from the rest of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States had little intention of settling in South Africa. As a result of this, it’s likely that these urban dwellers weren’t as badly effected by poor diets as their compatriots in the industrialised cities of the north Atlantic.

Cape Town’s slums and squatter settlements were, though, populated by a new urban poor who migrated with their families to the city during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Most factory workers were paid barely enough to cover their rent. Mr W. Dieterle, manager of J.H. Sturk & Co., a manufacturer of snuff and cigars, said of the young women he employed:

It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live. In the mornings they have a piece of bread with coffee, before work. We have no stop for breakfast, but I allow them to stand up when they wish to eat. Very few avail themselves of this privilege. They stay until one o’clock without anything, and then they have a piece of bread spread with lard, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of fish.

This diet – heavy on carbohydrates and cheap stimulants (like coffee), and relatively poor in protein and fresh produce – was typical of the city’s poor. It wasn’t the case that food was unavailable: it was just that urban workers couldn’t afford it.

In fact, visitors to the Cape during this period commented frequently on the abundance and variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat on the tables of the middle classes. White, middle-class girls at the elite Huguenot Seminary in Wellington – a town about 70km from Cape Town – drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt (syrupy grape jam) on their bread for breakfast and supper. A typical lunch consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

It’s also worth noting that the Seminary served its meals during the morning, the middle of the day, and in the evening – something which was relatively new. Industrialisation caused urban workers’ mealtimes to change. Breakfast moved earlier in the day – from the middle of the morning to seven or eight o’clock – lunch (or dinner) shifted to midday from the mid-afternoon, and dinner (or tea) emerged as a substantial meal at the end of the day.

Factory workers in Cape Town ate according to this new pattern as well. The difference was the quality of their diet. A fifteen year-old white, middle-class girl in leafy Claremont who had eaten an ample, varied diet since early childhood was taller and heavier than her black contemporaries in Sturk’s cigar factory. In all likelihood, she would have begun menstruating earlier, and would have recovered from illness and, later, childbirth far more quickly than poorer young women of the same age. She would have lived for longer too.

Urbanisation changes the ways in which we eat: we eat at different times and, crucially, we eat new and different things. By looking at a range of examples from the nineteenth century, we can see that this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The industrial revolution contributed to the more varied and cheaper diets of the middle classes. Industrialised food production and transport caused the urban poor in the United States to eat better than many of those left behind in rural areas, for example. But it’s also clear that it exacerbates social inequality. In the 1800s, the poor had too little to eat and that which they did have was not particularly nutritious. Children raised on these diets were shorter and more prone to illness than those who ate more varied, plentiful, and protein-rich food. Now, the diets available to the poor in urbanising societies are as bad, even if the diseases they contribute to are caused by eating too much rather than too little.

Most importantly, we have an abundance of food in our growing cities. Just about everyone can afford to eat. The point is that only a minority can afford good, fresh food, and have the time, knowledge, and equipment to prepare it. Food mass produced in factories helped Europe and North America’s cities to feed their urban poor a hundred years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the twenty-first century.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Columbian Exchange in Africa

Two years ago, I attended a conference organised by the British Academy on the current vogue for global history. It ended with a discussion on the pitfalls of the field and one of the panellists – a distinguished historian of African history – made the important point that much of which goes under the name of ‘global history’ is simply European or North American history spiced up with a few references to India or China. Africa, and to a lesser extent, South America and Australia tend not to get much of a look in. During the discussion, an economic historian managed to earn himself the hatred of every Africanist in the room by remarking that Africa is indeed deeply important to global history. How else, he asked, would historians write prehistory?

This is such a daft remark that I really don’t want to devote any space to disproving it, but, unfortunately, it does provide at least some explanation for the neglect of Africa in global history: most European and North American historians tend to know very little about African history, and, if they do, it’s only through the prisms of the Atlantic slave trade and imperial conquest. Food history – which is usually seen as an offshoot of global history – is as guilty in this regard.

One of the reasons for the absence of Africa in food history – other than the fact that only a very small handful of African historians write about food – is that Africa is not seen as having been part of that founding moment of food history, the Columbian Exchange. Although not directly implicated in it, Africa did certainly experience the effects of the exchange. I think that taking a closer look at the place of food in African colonial encounter – and food, as I argued here, played a similar role in Africa as it did in South America – sheds some light on the nature of the Columbian Exchange.

Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first commander of its outpost in the Cape, noted carefully the seeds which he brought with him from Europe and planted in the Cape: radishes, peas, chickpeas, cabbages, lettuce, beans, watercress, wheat, melons, barley, carrots, chervil, parsley, beetroot, spinach, cauliflower, turnips, fennel, cucumbers, quince, and pumpkins. He hoped to import more fruit trees, and contemplated the chances of introducing rice. Despite planting the crops in the middle of winter and forgetting to fence them in – meaning that baboons and other animals feasted on the seedlings – the employees of the DEIC managed to supplement the bread, rice, and salted meat which they had brought with them to the Cape with fresh produce. They even had enough of a surplus to provide some passing ships with vegetables.

In terms of the Columbian Exchange, the choice of plants which Van Riebeeck and his crew brought to the Cape are interesting. They were almost identical to those which Columbus took to the Americas during his second voyage in 1494: wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, lettuce, grapevines, and sugar cane. These crops flourished selectively, though. Olives and grapevines took root only in Chile and Peru, for example. In Mexico, wine and wheat didn’t prove to be popular, but Mexica women added European salad ingredients to the small gardens they cultivated to supplement their families’ diets and to sell at market.

With around seventy years separating Columbus and Van Riebeeck’s voyages, the similarity of their crops is striking. With the sole exception of beans and pumpkins, Van Riebeeck took exclusively the crops of the Old World to the Cape. For the modern reader, the absence of potatoes and maize are particularly inexplicable. Corn and potatoes are nutritious, good sources of energy, and grow relatively well in adverse conditions. Both crops demonstrate, though, the extent to which the uptake of new foodstuffs during and after the Columbian Exchange was an uneven one.

Jeffrey Pilcher notes that ‘Although a global process, the Columbian Exchange was nevertheless negotiated at the local level.’ By this he means that the popularity of the foods taken to and from South America was determined by a range of factors, from the ecological to the cultural. Squash and beans – which were similar to more familiar foodstuffs – were quickly incorporated into European diets. In contrast, potatoes and maize were first fed to animals. Potatoes, in particular, came to be associated with famine. Potatoes were only cultivated in Britain on a large scale from the late eighteenth century onwards as a result of bad grain harvests and population growth. Economists and agriculturalists urged the government to order farmers to plant potatoes alongside wheat to ensure a food supply when the harvest failed. Thomas Malthus railed against this, arguing that potatoes fuelled unsustainable population growth which would, in the end, result in more famine. (England proved him wrong. Ireland didn’t.)

In France, the connection between potatoes and famine was broken shortly before the French Revolution. One of the vegetable’s greatest proponents, the scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (yes, as in pommes and potage parmentier), presented a bouquet of potato flowers to Louis XVI, who then placed one of the purple blooms on Marie Antoinette’s wig. This was a signal that potatoes were now high fashion. The leaves and flowers of the potato plant are actually highly poisonous, so who knows how French history would have turned out had Louis or Marie Antoinette, neither of them the sharpest knife in the picnic basket, decided to nibble one of Parmentier’s plants…. The various revolutionary governments maintained this enthusiasm for potatoes, which isn’t surprising considering that France, along with the rest of Europe, experienced a series of food shortages and famines during the late 1700s. The Committee of Public Safety had the flowerbeds of the Tuileries gardens ploughed and planted with potatoes in 1794.

Maize was cultivated more quickly in Europe. It was grown in Spain and Portugal by 1524, and in the form of polenta soon became part of the southern European peasant diet. It was this association with peasants that prevented maize from spreading more widely. But the crop proved to be incredibly popular outside of Europe: it was taken up rapidly throughout the Middle East, arriving in Lebanon and Syria in the 1520s where it helped spur population growth. From here it moved to northern India and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan by the seventeenth century. Seen as a cheap foodstuff ideal for feeding slaves, maize was introduced to West Africa by Portuguese traders in the 1500s and spread rapidly throughout the continent. This was not the only New World product to find favour in Africa: peanuts, chillies, and sweet potatoes were also assimilated into local cuisines.

As far as I can see, maize seems to have arrived in what is now South Africa during the eighteenth century, and given European food trends, it seems likely that potatoes were first planted then in the Cape as well. The African experience of the Exchange demonstrates the extent to which it was dependent not only on ecology and patterns of human migration, but also on cultural assumptions about race and class.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Other sources:

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).

James Walvin, ‘Feeding the People: The Potato,’ in Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Arturo Warman, Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance, trans. Nancy L. Westrate (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.