File picture: Jerome Delay/AP
File picture: Jerome Delay/AP

SONA 2020: 'Increase R430 child support grant so the kids can eat'

By National Centre of Excellence in Food Security Time of article published Feb 13, 2020

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The paltry child support grant of just R430 a month is insufficient to significantly impact  malnutrition rates among South Africa’s children, and it’s time for President Cyril  Ramaphosa to step in and do something about it.

This is the message to the president ahead of his State of the Nation Address (SONA)  from the national Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS). It  comes against a backdrop of Statistics South Africa evidence that the government is failing  the country’s children, along with young adults battling food insecurity in tertiary  institutions.

As at 2018, the most up-to-date evidence on the state of the government’s early childhood  development (ECD) goals for children from birth to six years showed that as many as one  third of all children in Gauteng and the Free State were stunted. The North West province  and the Western Cape were home to the highest percentage of underweight children.

According to the World Health Organisation, malnutrition in all its forms includes  undernutrition (wasting, stunting and underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals,  overweight/obesity, and resultant diet-related non-communicable diseases. Undernutrition  and stunting also negatively impacts brain development, affecting the ability to learn.

The CoE-FS cites the latest available research which shows that some 54% of all South  African households still experience either hunger or the risk of hunger. This means that in  more than half of all South African households, people either do not have enough to eat, or  aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.

Cheap, unhealthy food costs less

Although two increases in the child grant were effected last year, to R420 in April and then  to R430 in October, Professor Julian May, director of the CoE-FS, said the amount fell far  short of being able to ensure food and nutrition security. The situation was compounded by  the fact that unhealthy foods with high levels of salt, sugar and fats were cheaper than  healthy foods in South Africa.

“Effectively, South Africans just cannot afford to eat sufficient fresh vegetables and fruit, but  can afford to eat fast foods and sugary beverages,” he emphasised.

May distinguished between achieving food security, which ensures everyone eats enough  calories, and nutrition security, which ensures that everyone also eats food that is safe,  nutritious and contributes to a balanced diet.

“It’s a complex issue that also requires the government and city authorities to rethink how  they manage the food system, including, for example, encouraging informal sector food  traders rather than chasing them away.

“We also need to support small-scale farmers that live near urban centres, such as those in  Philippi near Cape Town, rather than allow productive land to be sold to property  developers,” he urged.

Key interventions

Considering the depth of the challenge, May flagged the following for attention by  Ramaphosa and his government:
  • Enforcement of existing legislation preventing the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages to children.
  • Hiking the sugar tax on beverages.
  • Introducing conditional grants for municipalities that encourage healthy local food system planning.
  • Boosting school feeding budgets for wider coverage.
  • Increasing spending on the enforcement of food safety regulations.
The University of Pretoria’s Professor Lise Korsten, co-director of the CoE-FS, echoed May’s  food safety warnings, saying the government had to work jointly with existing structures to  develop a food safety framework.

“We need the government to make this a priority; food must be safe at all levels, and should  never be compromised by an ineffective, broken system,” she said.

Korsten urged the President to support the establishment of a food safety agency and a  national food safety institute in order to effectively address the many safety challenges that  exist in South Africa’s resource-poor climate.

“I am afraid we are still in dreamland when it comes to effective governance of a sound food  safety system,” she said.

Addressing food waste

May appealed to the private sector to join hands with the government, saying that big food  companies and supermarkets had an important role to play in finding ways to reduce the  cost of fresh foods. This included better supply chain management so that less food was  wasted.

Professor Hettie Schönfeldt, director the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA)  Centre of Excellence in Food Security, said it was unacceptable that when shoppers bought a  single onion or tomato, for example, they paid 33% more than they would if they bought a
whole packet.

“A single agricultural food product sold in the same supermarket should be the same price  as those in a packet. We also need to expand the zero-tax rating of foodstuffs to include all  recommended items prescribed in the Department of Health’s Food-Based Dietar  Guidelines,” she said, pointing out that the affordability of a healthy food basket for all  South Africans was a human rights issue.

May agreed that zero-rating products such as infant cereals for children older than six  months may have some effect, but warned that there is no quick-fix.

“Ultimately, we need to increase grant amounts, while continuing to find ways to boost the  number of South Africans who are employed,” he said.

Drivers of malnutrition

Dr Stephen Devereux, who holds the SA-UK Bilateral Research Chair in Social Protection for  Food Security, agreed. 

He suggested that the inadequate attention paid to non-income and  non-food drivers of malnutrition could be reason why child anthropometric outcomes in  South Africa had not improved since 1994. This is despite the Child Support Grant, the  National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) and numerous other “well-intentioned  interventions”.

“The Child Support Grant is clearly inadequate and should be increased,” he said, but also  warned Ramaphosa that this must be accompanied by complementary interventions. While  school meals absorbed 96% of the NSNP budget, school gardens and nutrition education  were “woefully” underfunded and neglected – even though they could make a substantial  positive contribution to children’s nutrition status.

Meanwhile, Funmilola Adeniyi, who established and manages the Access for Food for  Student Project in UWC’s Dullah Omar Institute (DOI), flagged student hunger as a primary  driver of the protests and unrest that have dogged the tertiary education landscape.

“Disturbing picture”

Recent research on food insecurity in tertiary institutions, she said, paints a disturbing  picture: “There is no excuse for the non-recognition of students as one of the vulnerable  groups deserving of targeted and immediate intervention to stop the scourge of hunger.  Hunger should not co-exist with learning on our campuses.”

She alerted Ramaphosa to the fact that the DOI, in conjunction with the CoE-FS, had  submitted a petition to the South African Human Rights Commission last year with a view to  holding the government accountable for the continued deprivation of students’ right to  food.

“We urged the SAHRC to urgently conduct an investigation into the alarming state of hunger  and food insecurity among students in tertiary institutions in the country, and to make  appropriate recommendations,” Adeniyi said, adding that it was time for an all-hands-on- deck approach to ensure the realisation of the right to food for all in South Africa.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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