The Food Environment of Primary School Learners in a Low-to-Middle-Income Area in Cape Town, South Africa

Rapid changes in food environments, where less nutritious foods have become cheaper and more accessible, have led to the double burden of malnutrition (DBM). The role food environments have played in shaping the DBM has attained global interest. There is a paucity of food environment research in low-to-middle-income countries. We conducted a case study of the food environments of school aged learners. A primary school in Cape Town was recruited. A multi-method design was used: a home food and eating behaviours questionnaire completed by 102 household respondents and four questions completed by 152 learners; learner participatory photography; a semi-structured school principal interview; a tuckshop inventory; observation of three-day tuckshop purchases. Foods that were commonly present in households: refined carbohydrates, fats/oils, chicken, processed meats, vegetables, fruit, legumes, snacks/drinks. Two thirds of households had rules about unhealthy drinks/snacks, ate supper together and in front of the TV, ate a home cooked meal five–seven times/week and ate breakfast together under two times/week. Vegetables were eaten under two times/week in 45% of households. A majority of learners (84%) took a lunchbox to school. Twenty-five learners photographed their food environment and 15 participated in semi-structured interviews. Six themes emerged: where to buy; what is available in the home; meal composition; family dynamics; peer engagement; food preparation. Items bought at informal food outlets included snacks, drinks and grocery staples. The principal interview revealed the establishment of a healthy school food environment, including a vegetable garden, although unhealthy snacks were sold at the tuckshop. Key dimensions of the food environment that require further investigation in disadvantaged urban and informal settlement areas include the home availability of unhealthy foods, eating behaviours in households and healthfulness of foods sold by informal food outlets.