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VrygrondUnited4Change Community Kitchens

I’ve become a huge fan of Sankey Diagrams recently. I find them a helpful way of showing resource flows as inputs, outputs and how much or what flows where. One stormy Thursday afternoon, I ventured out to the Blue Bird garage in Muizenberg to sign up for my first kitchen shift at our Community Kitchen and was welcomed by a surprisingly large mound of food. What caught my eye in that moment, apart from smiley eyes and masked faces, were the many colours lying on the table. Delicious colours I wanted to eat: boxes of bright red tomatoes, bags of butternut, deep green crunchy looking spinach, pink and green apples, oranges so bright I could almost taste them. There were also piles of 25kg bags of mielie meal, rice, pasta, beans, sorghum, tins of sardines, spices by the kilo, coffee, tea and sugar. I watched as the food was divided up into piles and I wondered whether anybody was recording what’s coming in, where the food goes and how many people are fed. I wasn’t only seeing colours and piles of dry goods, I was also seeing the potential for a Sankey diagram. And luckily, but not unexpectedly, there were invoices and kitchens were keeping record of what was coming in and how many people they fed a day. Incidentally, Amava Oluntu were also in need of someone to organize it all into something coherent. I said I’d gladly help, and I’d play with the data and see what it says.

After some time sifting through several very blurry pictures of stock takes and a few incomplete sheets of meals served, the total collection of the different data types was very useful. Several kitchens were meticulous with their stock takes and others never sent in any information. But after some probing, the picture of how this operation works as a whole gradually became clearer.

Vrygrond is a small, crowded neighbourhood with population estimates ranging between 13,000 (official 2011 census) and 42,000 people (more recent but unofficial estimate), in an area that covers roughly 0.82 km2. To put that in perspective, by 2011 census estimates, Muizenberg its neighbouring community has 2,400 people per km2 and Constantia (Cape Towns most affluent suburb) has 526 people per km2 . Even by conservative estimates the difference is staggering. But I digress. The VrygrondUnited4Change (VrygrondU4C) response to the COVID 19 Lockdown, was the start up of 15 kitchens cooking food for their communities. It must be noted here that there are other community kitchens operating in Vrygrond, some had been there before Lockdown and others started up recently, independently of VrygrondU4C. Unfortunately we are unable to include their records in here, so what I present here, are the records from the 15 kitchens that have come together under VrygrondUnited4Change.

If we look at the Sankey Diagram below, the lines from VrygrondU4C, The Big Food Drive and FoodflowZA (or collectively termed donors), represent the food purchased with the numerous cash donations received during the initial weeks of Lockdown. These cash donations mostly came from members of Muizenberg community and extended networks (also international) of these organisations. Food from the donors is delivered to the Blue Bird market, divided and distributed to the 15 kitchens equally. Other ad hoc community donations were made to the kitchens directly, which I’ve termed Community & Other (origin is unknown). Individuals and what I’ve lumped together as Community donations comprise a decent contribution to the total flow of food entering the kitchens. The line flowing from each kitchen to the far right shows the weekly average number of meals served in the first few months of Lockdown. For most kitchens it’s a lunch time thing, but some kitchens also serve breakfast.

Sankey Diagram of  the VrygrondUnited4Change Community Kitchens showing the weekly flow of food in kilograms, from donations on the left to finally the number of meals served on the right (per week per kitchen). For the colours: brown = dried goods, green = veggies, blue=fish, red=meat and teal = mixed foods. The thicker the line, the more kilograms of food. Several organisations coordinate community donations of cash to buy food on a weekly basis which is delivered to the Blue Bird market in Muizenberg. This food is then divided and distributed equally among the 15 kitchens in Vrygrond. The kitchens also directly receive donations from other organisations and local community individuals and groups. What we see here is the connections between and within communities.

You’ll notice that some of the flows coming into the kitchens are either larger or smaller than what is flowing out as meals. This highlights the intricacies of the data, some assumptions I’ve had to make (see technical note below) as well as various challenges of keeping complete records (e.g. no data or it’s simply not a priority). The fact that this data exists during a crisis response is remarkable. In the case of larger outputs than inputs (e.g. Rehab, Gods Vineyard, RCGEN etc), it may be due to unaccounted for donations (which I think is quite likely) or overestimated meals served. In the case of more food coming into the kitchen than out as meals, this may be due to there being a maximum kitchen capacity (pots, gas, space), and then surplus food is redistributed from the kitchen as it comes in rather than as a cooked meal. Also, the number of meals served is an average over 7 weeks and some of the donations are ad-hoc, so this will skew things a little.

What this Sankey diagram allows us to see is how much food comes in and the relative contribution of different donations to the total food budget of a kitchen. In the ideal world, we’d be able to include all the other kitchens operating in Vrygrond, identify all the other donations and we’d see the picture would look more intricate: more donations, more kitchens, more connections. But in the case of VrygrondU4C, while the largest contributors of total food are Amava Oluntu and The Big Food Drive, different communities are helping where they can and this can make up an important contribution to the total food budget of a kitchen (e.g. Vuyo Road and Xakabantu). The contribution of small individual flows have an impact and shouldn’t be underestimated. Also, community kitchens may find this useful in that they can start to identify where resources are potentially surplus (in terms of capacity to serve meals) and where they are needed.

One further aspect we could add to this diagram is to show the flows that feed into VrygrondU4C and The Big Food Drive (perhaps showing flows in Rands rather than Kg). What we would see is that it starts from many individual flows (comprising donations from local and international individuals) that then combine to become what we see as the flows of food from donor organisations. Bearing that in mind, what becomes apparent is that such organisations are crucial in the redistribution of resources, especially in times of crisis, as they are able to efficiently mobilise community resources by bridging many networks of many individuals. What is so admirably evident here is the strength (and importance) of community networks. As urban resilience becomes the phrase of our time, there seems to be much to learn from the connections and networks that have driven this response to the COVID19 crisis.

* Technical Note
To create the Sankey diagram, I’ve had to make several assumptions. Firstly I’ve had to give each item of food a weight, some were already given such as potatoes, rice, mielie meal. For other items such as spinach, cabbage, cauliflower etc, weights are not given. So for spinach for example, I assumed that each spinach bunch weighed the same as the one I randomly measured (2.5 kg). Also in some instances, lists provided by some kitchens would simply write ‘carrots’, ‘rice’, ‘pap, so I’ve taken the liberty to give it an average weight which could be an under or an overestimate. Also the flows represent a weekly average over say 7 weeks and so some weeks kitchens may have received more donations of ingredients than they have recorded, which I think is a likely scenario. Finally, with respects to the sankey diagram, while it attempts to visualise how the whole picture fits together, the story in Vrygrond is much larger than what we see. These data presented can only speak for VrygrondUnited4Change, and there will inevitably be inaccuracies and some things will have inadvertently been omitted.

We would like to invite you all to share thoughts of your own. They can be long, short, with images, without images, poems, artworks – expressions really, of what these times are bringing to your surface.

If you would like to contribute, please email

Ffion Atkins

Ffion is curious about systems, be they natural, human, big or small. Cities are particularly interesting systems to observe as they present us multiple opportunities to challenge our perspective and understanding. As much as they are melting pots of creativity, diversity and innovation, they are also spaces where our toughest human challenges are magnified. Ffion enjoys the messiness and complexity found in cities and believes it is in cities where we will find solutions to our global challenges. She lives in Muizenberg and enjoys our natural systems even more than she enjoys cities.