Putting food back on the table

Published Aug 31, 2015


Hunger bleeds into education, politics and social development, yet so many in KwaZulu-Natal awake each morning with no food. Kamcilla Pillay spoke to food security experts about what can be done to ensure people have enough to eat

In a report compiled after the People’s Tribunal on hunger, food prices and landlessness, the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign said 14 million South Africans suffered from hunger with almost half the population unsure where their next meal would come from.

Nokuthula Mhene, of Oxfam, wrote: “South Africa produces enough calories to feed its 53 million people, and there are policies in place to address hunger, yet one in four faces hunger due to various factors, including inequality.

Another 25% are at risk of hunger, which means any sudden shock to their status quo would then leave them hungry.”

Women and children, she said, bore the brunt, with food allocated to the men in the household first.

She blamed the “supermarket revolution”, where food prices had been driven up, with informal traders only providing 32% of food supply.

Rising food prices were not met by rising incomes, she said.

“People sacrifice food requirements to pay other costs such as housing, electricity and school fees.”

Almost one-third of all food produced was wasted, she said.

“The value of food lost is R61.5 billion per year.”

The problem of food security was compounded by the fact that only 17% of all South Africans supplemented their income by growing their own food.

Government programmes, while commendable, did not “speak to each other”, which impacted on their efficacy.

Marcus Solomon of the Children’s Resource Centre in Cape Town said in the same report that 60% of children were unable to learn because they did not have the mental capacity to do so because of a lack of nutrition.

“We are sitting with a disaster of unimaginable consequences for our country, even worse than HIV/Aids.”

Farm dwellers added their practical experiences to the discussion.

Ntombikayise Mthembu, a representative of the Siyaphambili eMajuba Farm Dweller Association in Mooiplaas, KwaZulu-Natal, said: “In the rural area where I come from, when I need to buy mealie meal or cabbage I have to travel about 35km, which costs about R45 for a roundtrip. So to buy bread that costs R10, it actually costs R55.”

University of the Witwatersrand sociologist, Katherine Joynt, wrote that poor households could spend up to 80% of their income on food.

“Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 12.4% increase in a basic food plate of maize, brown bread, white sugar, tea and milk.”

She agreed with Mhene, saying that corporate concentration was a key factor in worsening inequality.

Climate change was a problem as it shifted rainfall and temperature patterns, making it more difficult to grow food and so could increase food prices.

Increasing oil and chemical prices also play a role.

“Industrial agricultural relies heavily on oil (diesel) and chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides), and transports foods over long distances. As oil prices increase, food prices increase.”

Climate change and sustainability expert Professor Colleen Vogel echoed Joynt’s concerns, saying rain would be irregular.

“What it means, is that unless you have access to refrigeration, you are going to have problems. If you don’t have access to cooling, your produce will go off and you are going to lose food.”

In a paper titled “Food security in South Africa: a review of national surveys”, published in the 2011 edition of the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, researchers found there had been a reduction in the prevalence of food insecurity in the country between 1999 and 2008.

This was owing to government policies, such as “food supplementation, school feeding programmes and day care centre schemes”. The schemes at schools, it said, improved learning capacity and school attendance.

The problem was that most of these projects failed to reach deep rural areas because of poor transportation and other infrastructural problems.

The provision of social grants helped improve access to food.

The average household consisting of four people, said the study, needed a minimum of R1 146 a month to procure healthy food.

But statistics showed that most households were typically made up of six or seven members, trying to get by on the same amount.

Researchers found that poorer households ate food that was deficient in nutrition and lacked variety.

They said the issue ought to be addressed through “sustainable, non-income-dependent measures”, such as subsistence farming.

“However, the majority of the South African population lacks land for growing its own food and will have to continue to purchase most food items commercially.”

Another 2009 study published in Agrekon: Agricultural economics research, policy and practice in Southern Africa”, titled: “Exploring statistics of South Africa’s national household surveys as sources of information about household-level food security”, found that there had been significantly lower food expenditure per person in rural areas.

“(This suggested) a greater extent of ‘self-provisioning’, through farming.”

Food security seemed to go hand-in-hand with other social issues, such as the increase in child-headed households, and a decrease in employed adults in the family.

The study found that farming accounted for most or all of the gaps in terms of food expenditure between rural and urban households.

“Among the poorest half of households (a monthly income of less than R2 000), rural households spend 15% less on food. If this is ascribed to small-scale agricultural production, it has a gross value of about R2 billion per year.”

Rural households tended to allocate more of their food budget to grains, but also spent far less on dairy and eggs as compared to their urban counterparts, owing in part to access to larger tracts of land for raising livestock.

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