What role do social networks play in the attainment of food security in cities?

“I am because we are” #UbuntuQuote

This year I planted 14 distinct types of vegetables (Fenugreek, Kale, Spinach (Swiss chard), Beetroot, Amaranth, Carrots, Kidney beans, Ground cherry, Sagaa, Cucumber, Pepper, Onions, Tomatoes, Squash (pumpkin), and Red Raspberry and Sunflower).

Out of the total, six seedlings did not sprout (Ground cherry, Cucumber, Sagaa, Pepper, Onions). Two sprouted but not yield (tomatoes, squash) a harvest as the crop growing season draws to a close, while the rest yielded a fair harvest, especially Fenugreek, Kale, spinach, Beetroot, Amaranth.

Above: Flowered but no fruit near end of season.

How will I access some of the vegetables that I planted but never harvested. Yet, they are part of what I planned to have as a way to attain my food and nutritional security. Food security "exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” (1996 at the UN World Food Summit)

Access to food through social networks

Individuals and families can achieve their food security through the cultivation of desired food, purchase, and by belonging to social networks.

Social networks are used here as groups and associations people belong to as members of a family, community, or associations. For example, I belong to social networks in my capacity as a daughter, a sister, a mother, aunt, cousin, daughter-in-law, grandchild, a researcher, African immigrant, city-dweller, urban gardener, and citizen, among others.

Benefits of being a member of social networks

Once I made it known to my various networks that not all my vegetables yielded a good harvest, some friends and relatives came to my rescue. They gave me vegetables from their garden. Their good act made me reflect on the many roles that social networks play in the achievement of food security, as detailed below:

  1. Stay connected. Social networks enable individuals to stay in touch with friends, neighbours and relatives in good and tough times.
  2. Share information. For example, once I created awareness that some of my vegetables had failed while others yielded a good crops, I was given pumpkin leaves, Managwa, green onions and parsley. I also gave out Fenugreek, Kale, Beetroot and Spinach to some people in my network who did not plant or had a bad harvest. Being the food cultivation season, individuals within my networks also exchange information on markets where one can purchase vegetables and other foods at a comparably lower price.  

Above: vegetables I received as gifts.   Below: I gifted some members of my social network.

3. Learning process. Compared to the last crop growing season, this season came with challenges. Many of my seeds did not sprout, while others such as tomatoes grew but did not yield a tomatoes. When I voiced my concerns, I received feedback and the one that resonated most was that the seeds I planted must have died from too much cold in the soil. Next season I will consult on the best month to plant various seeds.

4. Important channel for education and learning on best farming practices. When I started cultivating vegetables in urban centers, I spread them out as we did back in my rural home. I have since learned that in cities where land is limited (I farmed on a 40X80), it is practical to plant on straight lines to maximize on the limited land size, makes it easy to remove weeds and irrigate the crops. I have also shared information with my network on the benefits of crop diversification in the management of common vegetable pests.

5. A channel for easy exchange of produce. The haves and have-not can share produce without developing the feeling of dependence. In the past, before I started to cultivate vegetables, friends could ask me to go harvest vegetables towards end of the season. I did likewise last year and will do the same, though these year yields have been too low to have some to spare. 

6. Helps create sense of community for knowledge exchange. Being on a community farm with more than thirty different families has brought together city-residents from different multicultural backgrounds. Interactions while at the farm helps individuals expand on their social networks, provides a chance to learn and see new food items, a boost to their nutritional food security. For example, this season was my second year to cultivate Fenugreek and Beetroot, which I have subsequently added to my family diet as a new food item.

7. Gender and age in food security. There is encouragement in seeing men, women and children actively growing food. The practice sends the message that household food security is a responsibility of both men and women. The presence of children at the farm is one way to prepare the younger generation as future farmers, and gives children a chance to learn details of the source of their food.

I have so far established that however large and advanced a city is (in terms of formal institutions, markets and marketing), people, especially newcomers to cities transition better when they are part of social networks through which they access information on where and how to access food and other products and services in their new environments.

What type of social networks do you value in your urban center? What are some of the benefits of belonging to social networks by city residents?