/ 3 September 2023

Cost of household food basket up by 7.3%

 5025 Dv
Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

South African households are struggling to put nutritious food on the table and the cost of staples such as maize and rice are rising to unsustainable levels, a new food price survey has warned. 

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s (EDJG) Household Affordability Index, released this week, tracked food price data from 47 supermarkets and 32 butcheries in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Mtubatuba and Springbok.

In August 2023 the average cost of a household food basket was R5 124.34, which reflected an increase of R348.75 (7.3%), from R4 775.59 in August 2022 and a R42.40 (0.8%) month-on-month rise from R5 081.94 in July 2023. The survey showed that food prices were most expensive in Springbok, Mtubatuba, Johannesburg and Durban.

The cost of the basket increased annually across the board in all regions surveyed as follows:

  • Joburg: R327.28 (6.7%) to R5 215.79
  • Durban: R261.62 (5.4%) to R5 069.40 
  • Cape Town: R437.40 (9.5%) to R5 062.03 
  • Springbok: R447.72 (9.1%) to R5 380.03 
  • Pietermaritzburg: R259.81 (5.6%) to R4 930.14 
  • Mtubatuba: R351.80 (7.2%) to R5 223.79 .

Foods that increased overall in price in August by 5% or more included rice (5%), butternut (9%), apples (8%) and oranges (8%). 

Foods that rose by 2% or more in price were white sugar (4%), samp (3%), potatoes (2%), frozen chicken portions (3%), stock cubes (2%), tea (3%), boerewors (3%), spinach (2%), Cremora (3%), bananas (4%), peanut butter (3%) and white bread (4%).

The price of foods that make up the core staples, and which are prioritised in the trolley and by the purse, remained “stubbornly high”, according to the EDJG report. These foods are bought to ensure families do not go hungry and that meals can be prepared, despite load-shedding interruptions. 

Women identified 17 such staple foods: maize meal, rice, cake flour, white sugar, sugar beans, samp, cooking oil, salt, potatoes, onions, frozen chicken portions, curry powder, stock cubes, soup, tea and bread (brown and white).

In August, these food items cost R2 826.37 in the average household basket, not leaving much room for nutritious foods such as eggs, meat and vegetables.

EJDG programme coordinator Mervyn Abrahams said these foods take up a large proportion of the money households have available to buy food, because they must be bought regardless of price escalations. Over the past year, these core staple foods have gone up by R201.44 or 7.7%.

“Only after the core staples have been secured do women allocate remaining money to the other critically important nutritionally rich foods, which are essential for health and well-being and strong immune systems — meat, eggs and dairy, which are critical for protein, iron, and calcium; vegetables and fruit, which are critical for vitamins, minerals, and fibre; and maas, peanut butter and pilchards, good fats, protein, and calcium essential for children,” he said.

“The high cost of core staple foods result in a lot of proper nutritious food never reaching the family plate. This has negative consequences for household health and well-being, child development and the ability to resist illness — and particularly maternal health, because mothers eat last and sacrifice their own bodies to secure whatever little nutritious foods might still be available for their children.”

The survey also found that the price of rice is rising on the back of India’s global non-basmati rice export ban, although South Africa imports most of its rice from Thailand (76.5%), with Indian imports making up 19.1%.

“In almost half of the supermarkets tracked, rice prices increased — some marginally, but some surged. The India rice ban will likely lead to global rice prices increasing.”

Rice is a core staple food and the second most important starch in most South African homes after maize meal.

“Women alternate maize meal and rice, and to a lesser degree samp and ujeqe [steamed bread]. This rotation of maize meal and rice is important because it provides some variance in the meal, even if everything else on the plate is the same. Rice is therefore relatively inelastic [demand remains constant] — like maize meal, when prices increase, rice is still bought,” Abrahams said.

A Pietermaritzburg woman interviewed during the survey noted, “If the price of rice goes up, even if it goes up a lot, we will still buy it, we are used to it, and we need it.”

This is partly because rice is quicker to cook than maize meal. It is lighter on electricity and takes less time to prepare and doesn’t need to be vigilantly watched or stirred.

“Women tell us that rice is a safer bet when load-shedding is unpredictable — if rice is on the boil and the lights go off, it will continue cooking in the residue heat. Maize meal, after two hours with no electricity, is typically unsalvageable and must be discarded. The price of rice is therefore important, it being a core staple food for most South African households. And an energy food, which staves off hunger,” Abrahams said.

“Rice prices in supermarkets will need to be carefully monitored, including ensuring that the India rice ban is not used to raise prices higher than what is reasonable or fair [price gouging].” 

The EJDG report warned that it was in the interest of business and consumers to keep the cost of staple foods low because, as the prices continue to increase, food producers, manufacturers and retailers will face falling profits on other foodstuffs because South Africans simply “have no money to buy these foods”.