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Strong ties, weak actors? Social networks and food security among farm workers in South Africa

Claasen, Nicole, Lemke, Stefanie
Food security 2019 v.11 no.2 pp. 417-430
commercial farms, farm labor, food security, households, issues and policy, livelihood, nutrition, social networks, socioeconomic status, South Africa
Farm workers employed on commercial farms are among the poorest and most food insecure population groups in South Africa. This study investigated formal (organisational) and informal exchange relations and the association with food security within ego (N = 561) and whole networks (N = 54) among farm workers and their households on three commercial farms. All households were food insecure, with mildly food insecure actors (n = 22) showing significantly smaller-sized networks with regard to total number of ties and food exchange ties compared to moderately food insecure actors (n = 32). Informal exchange networks were largely kin-related and characterised by low economic status, located within a 50 km radius. While these networks represented an important strategy to cope with food insecurity, farm workers lack bridging ties to actors (individuals or institutions) outside the farm who may enable access to information and opportunities to mobilise resources towards enhancing food security and livelihoods in the long term. Shop owners and farm owners occupy a central position in the networks, highlighting dependency and ongoing paternalistic structures. This study contributes empirical data to the scarce literature on network analysis in the context of food security in South Africa, providing in-depth insights on a population that is formally employed, but remains poor, marginalised and forgotten in contemporary debates on food and nutrition security. Efforts to implement existing policies remain crucial to enable farm workers to access resource-rich networks, including socially more advantaged actors or organisations, in order to achieve better livelihoods outcomes.