Although the information on households’ diets and dietary diversity as well as sources of food may be obtained through surveys, information on why households consume food they do, why they obtain food from different sources, what determines the choice of diet and information on whether food is always available in abundance, may be limited. The present study emphasised drawing on the experiences of households in the communities, their perceptions of food security and causes of food insecurity, what they encounter when they are in the situation of food shortage, the measures they take to combat shortage of food in their households and what they feel should be done to improve food security in their communities.
Diets and food diversity
Although participants from all the focus groups seemed to be familiar with the concept of dietary diversity and a balanced diet as was hypothesised in this study, their perceptions about eating healthily were not in line with the terms as most mentioned that they eat different foods because they get tired of eating the same meal. The way they change their diets, for example, rice, pap, potatoes and samp, does not have an impact on improving their dietary diversity as they typically substitute one food for another in the same food group. Steyn et al. , Schönfeldt et al.  and Faber et al.  also reported that starchy foods, especially maize-based foods, dominate the diet of many South Africans. Fruits were rarely mentioned by the focus group participants which are also consistent with other studies in South Africa, where low intake of fruits and vegetables was reported in most poor communities [40, 41]. Most focus group participants also mentioned that they consume meat a lot and meat has also been found to be the main source of protein consumed in other parts of South Africa .
Sources of food
Although focus group participants mentioned that they obtain their food from different sources which included own production, purchasing, collecting from open spaces and food donations, their primary source of food was purchasing. However, in Richards Bay, own production was also an important source of food where the majority of the households were practising subsistence production and were less dependent on food purchases. Participants in Richards Bay also mentioned that own production improved their food security status as they were getting good-quality food from their fields as well as getting income from selling surpluses which they could use to buy the food which they could not produce. Baiphethi and Jacobs , Crush et al.  and Mkwambisi et al.  also pointed on the importance of farming in improving food security in South Africa as farm produce can substitute imported foodstuffs and this is cost-effective for poor households. In Richards Bay most people who relied on donations and purchasing every food item were regarded in their communities as being “lazy”. In all communities, some households did not engage in own production because farming or gardening was regarded as indicators of poverty and it was old-fashioned. This is consistent with Aliber and Hart  who reported that some South African households regard obtaining food through farming as a sign of extreme poverty. Thornton  also noted the rejection of agriculture by the youth in South African towns of Grahamstown and Peddie as they regarded it as not part of their lifestyle, not a viable alternative to unemployment and something that is practised by the elderly.
Although agriculture has been shown to improve food security in many households, it is becoming less significant as a primary food source for many poor South African households as many are purchasing food. Focus group participants in Dundee and Harrismith also reported that their main source of food was via purchasing rather than own production. The decline in agriculture and increasing reliance on purchased food has been reported to have a negative impact on households vulnerable to food insecurity as this increases the levels of food insecurity [1, 4, 7, 8]. Also, increases in food prices exacerbate food insecurity for many households . Due to dependence on state social grants as a form of improving household food security in South Africa since 2001 , a greater proportion of the population feels that agriculture does not help significantly in their day-to-day survival. Thornton  calculated that participants could only save less than R100 per month in food costs when they engaged in gardening; therefore, the social grants provided the majority of poor households with the means to purchase some food. However, many participants in the FGDs of our study found the social grant insufficient for their survival and wished that the government would help with providing knowledge on agriculture and provide resources for them to fully engage into subsistence farming. For example, Kundhlande et al.  noted that farmers from Thaba Nchu in the Free State Province of South Africa could no longer cultivate their communal lands because they could not afford the necessary inputs as a result of removal of government support to farmers. Theft was also mentioned as one of the reasons why some households abandoned own production in many communities in the study sites as also reported by Clack . The community members perceived that those members who are not growing their own food or keep own livestock and those regarded as “lazy”, steal from those who are involved farming at night as many do not have tight security due to lack of income.
The choice of diet
Participants in the FGDs had different perceptions as to why they consume a particular diet. Some mentioned preference, others stated to satisfy hunger, while others had little choice but to eat whatever is available and cheap food that they can afford to buy. It was hypothesised in this study that households may not consider consuming a diverse diet due to lack of resources. Feelings of having no choice of the food one consumes have also been reported by Connell et al.  for children in the USA. In this case, focus group participants reported on circumstances forcing them to consume pap with potatoes, pap with amahewu or pap with cabbage, thus mostly adopting monotonous diets based on starchy staples, corroborating other studies [40, 41, 48]. The study revealed that it is beyond the reach of many households to consume a more diverse diet as many are compromising the quality of their food for cheaper and less nutritious foods that only satisfy their hunger. This is consistent with what was reported in South Africa by Brinkman et al.  who said most vulnerable households compromise the quality of the food by switching to cheaper and less nutritious foods that satisfy hunger in response to increasing food prices. In Canada, Chan et al.  reported that younger people would resort to cheaper foods which are reasonable in terms of cost, quality and ability to satisfy hunger although they might prefer the more expensive healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables or whole-wheat products.
As hypothesised, participants also stated that they do not consider food diversity when preparing food, but they just eat what would be available at the moment and what they could afford to buy although they know they may be missing some important nutrients in their diets. This is in line with Puoane et al.  who reported that household food choices in South Africa are influenced both by what is available in households’ immediate environment and food prices on the market. The diet of most South Africans is rich in animal fats and low in complex carbohydrates, and it lacks fruits and vegetables because these are expensive . Because of few supermarkets in the rural and peri-urban locations, households living in these areas have to travel to urban areas to buy food, which involves considerable transport cost . Also, due to increases in transportation costs, food prices are forced to increase. Therefore, households resort to buying food from the local shops which are expensive and have limited variety of healthy foods, especially in rural areas, or may buy from numerous street vendors with stalls selling cheap fatty meat and fatty snacks such as “vet koek”, especially in peri-urban locations . Thus, most poor households access cheap but unhealthy foods. This was also mentioned in the focus groups, especially in Harrismith, where participants perceived transport costs and high food prices at local shops as some of the influencing factors to not consuming varied diets.
Market price has also been noted to have an influence on the choice and consumption of diverse foods in many households [51, 52]. Results from this study are consistent with Faber et al.  who reported that the diet of most South African households comprises of more energy and more processed foods, including refined grains, and foods higher in saturated fat, sugar and salt which are cheaper to buy. The cost of electricity was also mentioned by the focus group participants as a contributing factor to food insecurity in their households as they perceived the cost to be too high, taking a huge portion of their income as was reported by Abdu-Raheem and Worth  in South Africa. Therefore, total household income is a major determinant of household food security in South Africa as this directly affects the type of food a household consumes.
Food abundance, food insecurity and coping strategies
Participants stated that food is readily available at the markets throughout the year, but the problem of limited access to the food was emphasised, as hypothesised in this study. Because these focus groups were carried in the rural and peri-urban locations (except one in Dundee), many agreed that they had limited access to affordable food as they face higher prices for food, while some had limited financial access. These areas are characterised by high levels of poverty and unemployment; therefore, household income and wealth status determine the level of household food security through the ability of the household to access food . This corresponds closely to what has been documented that South Africa is food secure at national level [10, 54], but large numbers of households within the country are food insecure as about 20% of South African households are estimated to have inadequate or severely inadequate access to food .
Focus group participants, especially in Dundee and Harrismith, articulated that barriers to food access are mostly low income, poor climatic conditions, water shortages, poverty, unemployment, no access to land, rising food prices and lack of resources to practise farming. This was hypothesised in this study and is in line with reports by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC)  who mentioned that widespread chronic poverty and unemployment are the main causes of food insecurity in South Africa. Chopra et al.  also reported that household food insecurity was consistent with income, employment status and food expenditure in Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Limpopo Provinces in South Africa. However, Shackleton et al.  and Musemwa et al.  noted that the high food insecurity levels could be due to a decline in smallholder agriculture as the majority of South Africans access their food through purchasing from the markets. Households in Richards Bay who were engaging in own production perceived that they were food secure unlike in Dundee and Harrismith who relied mostly on purchasing. Water shortages in many communities have also been implicated as driving forces preventing most households from growing crops on their homesteads, thereby increasing food insecurity . FAO  noted that availability and access to land and water resources are of the greatest importance in improving food security as well as reducing poverty globally. Cook et al.  and Kemp-Benedict et al.  reported that food security along the agricultural basins located in the Limpopo Province is strongly determined by water availability and use. Therefore, availability of water can increase agricultural production which in turn can improve food security and reduce poverty, as was perceived by the focus group participants.
Increases in food prices cause the most vulnerable households to reduce dietary diversity [7, 49]. It becomes very difficult for most households, especially low-income households, to consume a more diverse diet with a diverse range of foods as the majority of South African households are struggling to sustain a decent income  and many cannot afford to purchase fruits and vegetables. Therefore, households reduce the consumption of more expensive food items as well as dietary diversity, portions and frequency of meals [49, 62]. As was hypothesised, reducing the quality, quantity and frequency of meals consumed per day was mentioned by the focus group participants as one of the ways they cope with food shortages. This supports findings by Oldewage-Theron et al.  and Battersby and McLachlan  reporting that during periods of food shortages, households decrease the variety of foods eaten, reduce portion sizes and may eat cheaper fast foods.
Some households in these communities prioritise the diets of small children as they buffer the youngest children from declines in food intake and some mothers prioritise their children’s food consumption over their own. Thus, households in the study sites cope with declines in food availability without sacrificing calorie adequacy for vulnerable members which are young children in this case. Many perceived that the food parcels, the Child Support Grant and school feeding programmes are also part of their coping strategies as they get food from the government, use the grant money to buy food as well as send children to school where they receive food. In South Africa, the Child Support Grant and school food programmes have been attributed to lower levels of malnutrition .
The most vulnerable members in the communities were identified as mostly female-headed households who are taking care of children, orphaned children and grandchildren, those families with unemployed members and those with low cash-flow and only survive on social grants as well as those who are regarded as “lazy”. This was also noted by FAO  that the rural and urban poor, the landless and female-headed households are the major groups that are affected by food price increases. Women, especially of reproductive age, and young children were also noted as the most vulnerable groups in a study by Chakona . Jacobs  and Rudolph et al.  noted that low-income households are more likely to suffer from food shortages because food expenditure makes up a large share of their spending, thereby causing them to be more vulnerable to the impacts of rising food prices. Low income, low asset ownership and unemployment also increased the risk of food insecurity in households in the informal settlements of Johannesburg in South Africa .
Community perceptions on improving food security
Although households may implement any of several coping strategies, participants perceived that there is room to improve food security in their communities with the help and support from the government and also working together as community members. They argued that the government should provide them with inputs and agricultural knowledge and also provide services (such as land and water) which can help them achieve farming as they agreed that farming can improve food security. This is in line with what was reported by Kundhlande et al.  where farmers from Thaba Nchu in the Free State abandoned agriculture due to lack of resources and no government support. In Dundee and Harrismith, where water scarcity was an issue, they wished the government could provide taps so that they can establish home or community gardening projects. Community gardening projects have been noted to provide families with fresh vegetables, reduce food insecurity, improve dietary intake and strengthen social relationships as community members provide advice and support to overcome challenges . Home gardens also increase food availability and access as well as promoting a nutritious diet as these may directly contribute to household food security. Seeking employment was also perceived by most participants as another way to improve food security as this would increase their income status.