Author: Bwambale Bernard, Food Systems and Nutrition Programs Manager and Coordinator of Fort Portal Food Systems Lab
World Food Day (WFD) is celebrated annually on 16th October around the world to reflect on the role of food for humanity. This year’s theme was “Water is life, water is food. Leave no one behind”. Availability of clean water is a critical element in advancing sustainable food systems. The commemoration served as a platform to reflect on progress in strengthening urban food systems’ sustainability, fostering discussions on current challenges. It also provided a space for forward thinking about the future of local food systems in Fort Portal City and its surrounding hinterland.
The Fort Portal Food Systems Lab (FSL) organised a series of events around the theme of World Food Day 2023. In addition, the FSL brought together various stakeholders within the food system, including political and technical leaders from Fort Portal City and Kabarole District, the media, civil society organizations (CSOs), farmers, market and street vendors, chefs, food ambassadors, members of the coalition of the willing, academic and research institutions, and participants from the District and City Nutrition Coordination Committees, with the aim of actively involving these actors in the events.
The included community awareness-raising sessions on water and food safety and food and nutrition security, with an emphasis on environmental and water conservation. These awareness sessions used a variety of approaches, including studio and community radio talk shows, community meetings and barazas, focus group discussions and drama series. In addition to the awareness sessions, cleaning campaigns were carried out by various food system actors in the markets and main water sources of Fort Portal town. City councillors, market and street vendors, and school children and their teachers took specific leadership roles in these initiatives.
The market cleaning campaign specifically aimed to demonstrate optimal hygiene, sanitation and waste management practices in and around food markets and other food vending points. In contrast, the cleaning of the primary water source, River Mpanga, for Fort Portal City and Kabarole District had a specific purpose: to underscore the necessity of liberating this water source from plastics, agro-chemicals, and any form of pollution to ensure that it could effectively and sustainably support livelihoods for humanity.
Hearing local perspectives on food safety through a food testing session
Another fascinating event during the World Food Day celebrations was a comparative food testing session, which brought together political leaders, consumers, media, civil society organisations (CSOs) and individuals from the food industry. This session provided a hands-on opportunity to understand food labels and compare the weights of food products as indicated on packaging materials. The Food Systems Lab (FSL) coordinated the mobilisation of the participants and asked each individual to buy and bring measured/weighed food items commonly consumed in their households, such as bread, rice, millet, sugar, Blue Band, among others.
The food items brought by each participant were then practically reweighed using a well-calibrated digital weighing scale obtained from the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS). Surprisingly, more than 80% of the non-factory packaged food items were either under- or over-weighed compared to the factory packaged food items. This implies that a significant number of food businesses are using uncalibrated scales, resulting in potential losses for the sellers and at the same time misleading the consumers. During this session, consumers were sensitised on their rights and responsibilities to ensure consumption of safe and nutritious food.
Key concerns raised in discussion on food safety
Participants had the opportunity to voice their concerns about food safety. Several notable complaints emerged from this discussion. These included the lack of a clear reporting and complaint handling mechanism in Fort Portal, which was identified as a disincentive for consumers to make complaints. Participants also highlighted the limited availability of safer agrochemical options, leading to widespread misuse of chemicals in the region. Concerns were also raised about the high level of food contamination in various food products, which poses a significant threat to human health. Other issues included poor and misleading labelling of food products, an increase in counterfeit products on the market, the spread of misinformation and disinformation about unhealthy foods, and weak regulation of the food industry. Low hygiene standards in food outlets were also identified as a major concern by participants.
The World Food Day celebrations resulted in several recommendations and commitments. These included continued community awareness initiatives focused on food and nutrition security and food safety. Emphasis was placed on continued efforts to empower consumers, increased advocacy for food safety, and strict enforcement of existing regulations on agrochemicals. Additionally, there was a proposal to develop a consumer complaint and reporting system, among other measures.