Cape Town -
More than half the population is food-insecure, either at risk of hunger or already experiencing it.
And this food insecurity at household level exists despite the overall food security of South Africa as a country.
These shocking statistics are under discussion by malnutrition experts who, on the eve of World Hunger Day on Wednesday, are taking stock of the inequalities that underpin the problem.
The most recent South African National Health and Nutrition Examination says that, overall, only 46% of the population are food secure, while 28% are at risk of hunger and 26% experience hunger.
The largest percentage of those who experience hunger are in urban informal, and rural formal, localities.
By province, Gauteng and the Western Cape have the lowest prevalence of hunger, Eastern Cape and Limpopo the highest – both have a hunger prevalence above 30%.
Also, a 10th of the white population is food-insecure, while nearly a third of the black population is.
According to Professor Salome Kruger of the Nutrition Society of South Africa, under-nourishment of children in particular is a major problem in food-insecure households.
“In those insecure households, children may receive sufficient energy from their food, but not enough protein, vitamins and minerals to allow them to grow and to protect them from infections.
“These would be provided by meat, milk, fruit and vegetables, which are more expensive foods,” she says.
It is not only insufficient food which causes undernutrition.
“An unhygienic environment (no running water in the house or flush toilets) may also play an important role.
Such conditions cause diarrhoea, which could cause serious weight loss in an infant within a few days.
“Interventions such as providing piped water, flush toilets and education about washing hands are very effective to reduce child under-nutrition.”
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has released a statement saying inequality in Africa was weakening the link between economic growth and improvements in well-being on issues such as hunger.
“Africa is a continent of great wealth, so why is Africa’s share of global malnutrition and child deaths rising so fast?” he asks.
According to Estelle Veldman, communications manager at an upliftment NGO called Shiloh, malnutrition has a domino effect on children’s development.
She says malnourished school children have difficulties concentrating in class and are often labelled slow or lazy.
“Our bodies are not designed to work or play without the necessary fuel to keep everything working.
“Malnutrition causes severe loss of brain function, muscle development and concentration,” she says.
Speaking on behalf of the Nutrition Society of South Africa, Kruger said breastfeeding was by far the best way of counteracting malnutrition in babies and infants.
“Breastfeeding does not only provide all the necessary nutrients for the growth and development of the baby, but helps to make the environment in the baby’s gastrointestinal tract more ideal to prevent diarrhoea, which is an important cause of under-nutrition,” she said.
Formula needed to be prepared using water and that if the water was not clean and safe and the bottles not sterilised, the risk for diarrhoea was very high, she added.
“Breastfeeding on the contrary comes straight from the breast and contains elements that promote the growth of friendly bacteria in the baby’s gastrointestinal tract, to prevent diarrhoea.
“The scientific evidence states that babies should be breastfed exclusively (no bottles, water or foods) for the first six months of life.”