During a crisis, be it the Covid-19 pandemic or the July riots in South Africa, children are often the worst affected. This is especially the case where nutrition is concerned: when food supply chains, food feeding schemes and social security systems are interrupted, children often go hungry.
But what can be done to protect children during times of crisis, and what lessons can South Africa learn from these recent examples?
This was the question before panellists at a webinar hosted by the Mail & Guardian, Tiger Brands and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund on 13 October 2021. The theme of the discussion was: “Why food is an urgent rights issue for children during a crisis”. The panel was moderated by broadcast journalist Cathy Mohlahlana.
Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Tiger Brands Chairperson, said the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened an existing child nutrition problem in South Africa.
“The pandemic has severely exacerbated child hunger globally, including in South Africa, where many households reportedly ran out of money to buy food during the hard lockdown in 2020. When we look at the National Income Dynamic Study commissioned in April and May this year, there were … respondents from 2.3-million households, and they reported child hunger in the week before they were interviewed. Of those 2.3-million households, around 623 000 reported that a child had experienced hunger almost every day the week before they were interviewed,” she said.
Fraser-Moleketi said this showed that systems designed to prevent child hunger in a crisis failed to kick in. “Covid and the July riots showed our inability to really kick in and respond in a co-ordinated manner in handling the crisis,” she said. She added that when crises like these occurred, the systems in place could not access vulnerable children. Fraser-Moleketi said that Tiger Brands provides food to 105 schools.
She said that responding to these crises required co-operation between the government, the private sector and civil society.
Fraser-Moleketi pointed out the centrality of the health system in confronting these crises, saying by way of example that young children had stopped presenting at clinics during the hard lockdown.
Ambassador Sheila Sisulu, Tiger Brands Foundation Chairperson, said the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the brokenness of the global food system.
“The fact that we have introduced the in-school feeding programme by the department of education, feeding 9-million children per day, is testament to the fact that we knew that there was something wrong with the food system in South Africa. The global food system is broken. Any crisis causes it to fall apart globally and Covid-19 was no different.”
She added that, when children are hungry, it indicates a broader hunger problem within their families, which needs to be addressed.
Konehali Gugushe, Chief Executive Officer of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, said Covid-19 showed us “gaps that exist in all our systems”.
“In South Africa one of the stark effects was that of hunger. People during the hard lockdown who suddenly didn’t have access to food, and particularly those members of society who rely on social security systems for food.”
School closures and the restriction of movement during the hard lockdown revealed the divide between those with access to resources, and those without access.
Fraser-Moleketi said it was necessary to learn lessons from Covid-19 as the country was likely to face future crises, for example, around climate change. The panellists agreed that collaboration between all stakeholders was critical.
One suggestion was for the Office of the Presidency to host an inter-sectoral dialogue to address child hunger.
Gugushe said it was important to have partnerships and relationships in place that could be activated to respond to a moment of crisis. “For us, it was important to have that on the donor side and on the community side,” she said.
Sisulu said these relationships had to be established before a crisis hits. “Co-ordination can’t happen in a storm. It must happen on a sunny day. We must get together and plan for a rainy day,” said Sisulu.
Fraser-Moleketi cautioned against establishing new structures when existing ones had not been fixed or done away with.
“We should not put in place new structures without ensuring that dysfunctional structures are disabled or fixed. There is a social cluster in place and work is being done. What we’re seeing is the absence of optimal collaboration and coordination,” she said.
Fraser-Moleketi called for the private sector to contribute, as it has a “social responsibility role”. — Sarah Evans
View the webinar here: