Boxes of Jungle Oats, one of South Africa's Tiger Brands products, are seen on a shelf at a retailer. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Cape Town - According to the 2019 Statistics South Africa's (StatsSA's) National Poverty Line report, R561 suffices.

For a typical South African family - which according to the UN Household Size and Composition report currently averages two parents plus four children in this country - this is R3366 a month. Bear in mind that this amount does not include other household necessities such as electricity and water, as well as essentials such as clothing and transport.

With the minimum wage for a vast number of South African families currently standing at a low R3000 a month, just how many can afford to eat a nutritious meal daily? Not many.

In 2017, the number of people living in poverty stood at nearly 14million, with half of South Africans surviving on less than R900 a month. The situation has not improved since then. Trading Economics have put the unemployment rate at 29percent during the second quarter of 2019, up from 27.6percent earlier in the year.

Along with the increase in unemployment are sharp increases in the cost of petrol and food, with StatsSA placing the annual consumer inflation at 4.5percent in May. In April, inflation stood at 4.4percent. This resulted in soaring prices for basic foodstuffs such as maize meal and tinned fish.

This sad economic state of affairs is bound to hit the pocket hard, with its effects trickling down to the grocery cupboard at home. For those living on the poverty line, satiety value comes before nutrition. Added to this, meal times are also often reduced to one big meal instead of three, with the morning meal sacrificed more often than not.

The impact of this has far-reaching consequences for the entire family. Yes, breakfast has had a bad rap in the media in the last few years because of the nutritionally poor and sugar-loaded breakfast cereals which still to this day fill many cereal aisles in grocery stores. But nutritionists have come to the fore on this issue and, backed with sound scientific facts, have proven time and again that breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day.

According to nutritionists from online medical journal WebMD, breakfast kick-starts one's metabolism, which greatly assists in burning calories throughout the day. Added to this, breakfast also provides much-needed energy, which the brain needs for focus.

Skipping breakfast can have detrimental effects. After a long fast, such as the one which occurs when one is asleep through the night, the stomach is empty. If no food is eaten after waking, this results in fatty acids being released from the body's fat stores in order to provide the energy needed for proper muscle functioning. The average person - including children - does not have so many of these reserves.

So what does the body do? It starts breaking down muscle tissue in an effort to maintain blood glucose levels. The results of this are underweight adults and stunted children - a condition resulting from long-term under-nutrition which hampers the development of the skeleton, brain and internal organs.

According to research conducted by Nutrition Specialist, Dr Alison Feeley, the effects of stunting are vast and far-reaching, often lasting a lifetime. Apart from the aforementioned impairment on brain development, stunting also results in a lower IQ and a weakened immune system. This condition also places children at a greater risk of serious diseases which include obesity, diabetes and cancer later in life.

Undernourished children also have a direct impact on the economy, leading to an enormous drain on economic productivity and growth. Weighing-in on the matter, economists have estimated that stunting can reduce a country's gross domestic product, leading to a loss of billions of rand in future earnings.

In her report Dr Feeley emphasises just how crucial the first 1000 days of a child’s life are: “The right nutrition in the 1000 days between a woman's pregnancy and her child's second birthday builds the foundation for a child's ability to grow, learn and thrive.”

Children who receive the correct nutrition within their first 1000 days are said to be 10 times more likely to overcome the most life-threatening of childhood diseases, complete more grades at school, go on to earn 21percent more in wages and are far more likely to have healthier families themselves.

Because of economic constraints, many South African families living on the poverty line are unable to provide even the most basic meals to their children and when they do, nutrition is not always the key consideration.

Seeing this gap, the Basic Education Department stepped in to ensure that school-going children from non-fee paying schools are provided with a midday meal as part of the school nutrition programme. These meals include protein, fresh fruits and vegetables. But the problem of children arriving at school hungry persisted, affecting both their energy and concentration levels. This is when the Tiger Brands Foundation stepped in.

The In-School Breakfast Programme started out as a pilot project in one non-fee paying school, but has since snowballed to include 94 schools, with thousands of children fed a daily hot breakfast.

Served to learners before the start of school inside their classrooms, this breakfast comprises oats, sorghum and maize-based porridge - all taken from various Tiger Brands breakfast products.

These breakfasts are nutritionally sound, comparing favourably with the optimal micronutrient levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. Added to this, these breakfast products are regularly assessed to ensure there are no incidents of non-essential nutrients fed to the children. This breakfast perfectly complements the midday meal the children receive.

The “big squeeze” currently felt by thousands of South African consumers shows no signs of respite as the rand continues to fluctuate. This means nutritious food will continue to be a luxury for many. 

As the director of the Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, Linda Richter stated in an opinion piece she penned two years ago that denying children essential vitamins and nutrients leads to stunting, yes, but just look at the cycle this creates. Stunted children often start school late; learn less, pass fewer grades then, frustrated, end up leaving school. This results in them earning less as adults.

The solution? Let’s all come together and feed a child today in order to break this cycle of poverty. This will not only safeguard their future, but could just save the country’s economy.

* Eugene Absolom is the executive director at Tiger Brands Foundation, which provides in-school breakfast at 94 non-fee-paying schools across South Africa. The Foundation provides meals to approximately 70 000 learners.