/ 5 May 2023

People are starving in South Africa, the land of plenty

Starving South Africa
Food inflation has been topical over the past few months and South Africa saw double-digit levels from mid-2022 to mid-2023. (Waldo Swiegers/Getty Images)

Foodies globally were left desolate this week with news of Jock Zonfrillo’s death. The chef and judge on MasterChef Australia inspired many with his kind words, and love for food and local cuisine. 

As an avid watcher of MasterChef, I’ve developed an interest in food. 

It sparked some thoughts about food and nutrition in South Africa. 

In a country like ours, where there is such wealth, it is appalling that people go hungry. Everyone should have enough nutritious food. It is galling that the only meal that many children have each day is that provided by school feeding schemes.

In an ideal world, no one would go hungry. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, it is one where, in 2021, about 2.1 million people experience hunger, according to Statistics South Africa

My understanding of food security is when people have enough nutritious food. 

Food insecurity was one of the reasons suggested for the July 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. 

A previous Mail & Guardian article reported that South Africa is technically food secure but many households don’t have enough food for their dietary and nutritional needs. 

The country “requires food accessibility, affordability, nutrition and stability over time”, said Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa.

The complication the country has is that our agricultural exports are doing well, generally, but people are malnourished and face food insecurity.

Stats SA also reported that there are more than half a million homes where children under the age of five experience hunger. Without adequate food that is nutritious, children are at risk of malnutrition, which can lead to stunting and physical and cognitive development problems. These children battle to learn and underperform at school, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty and struggle.

Irene Labuschagne, principal dietitian at the Nutrition Information Centre at Stellenbosch University, wrote that “one in 10 South Africans go hungry every day”. 

Malnutrition is not only stunting, it can also lead to people being overweight and obese.

“The number of overweight children in South Africa has also grown. It increased from 10.6% in 2005 to 13.3% in 2016. This is more than twice the global prevalence of 5.6%,” she wrote.

The causes of malnutrition are many. There is a shift away from traditional diets to Western diets and lifestyles. People eat more unhealthy foods such as bad carbohydrates and excessive sugar and salt.

Fast foods are easily accessible, don’t have to be cooked and can be fairly cheap. Takeaway food is seen as sexy whereas greens and veggies aren’t.

But affordability is a key issue. Healthy food is expensive.

Jane Battersby, a researcher in urban food security, wrote, “The poor eat badly because it makes economic sense for them to do so. South Africa’s food system, for example, is one in which corporate power is concentrated. The system is dominated by ‘Big Food’ — large commercial entities that control the food market.”

What can be done? 

Projects such as the national school feeding programme, which provides food to millions of children every day, must be supported. 

Just as tobacco advertising is restricted, similar legislation must be introduced for unhealthy food and drinks. Sugar and salt taxes are a step in the right direction. 

People need to be taught about healthy food choices and the government has a role to play in ensuring healthier food is accessible. 

Battersby wrote: “Regulation of unhealthy foods without corresponding incentivisation of healthier foods is regressive. Likewise, if issues like access, storage, refrigeration and transport are not addressed, efforts to moderate food choice through pricing will only be an additional tax on the poor. It will not remedy food insecurity of either kind.”

Karen Hoffman and Safura Abdool Karim, of the University of the Witwatersrand, wrote that the environments people live in are behind their unhealthy food choices. Fast-food outlets and the high-calorie, high-sugar food they serve far outnumber grocery stores. Most poor areas have these fast-food shops whereas grocery stores can be found in wealthy areas. 

Paddy Harper recently wrote in the M&G, “Millions of learners have struggled without the breakfast and lunch served as part of the national school nutrition programme since the Easter break because the company granted the tender either failed to deliver food or provided rotten food.” 

The Special Investigating Unit is looking into corruption regarding the tender. Robbing children of healthy food is vile and those responsible must meet some harsh consequences. 

Sheree Bega wrote in the M&G about how the Gauteng department of social development has reconfigured its R2.3 billion budget and that NGOs will lose funding, which will affect the people they care for — older people, children, people with disabilities. 

For those of us who can afford it, let’s be part of a feeding scheme, let’s feed the needy, donate to charitable organisations or take food to an orphanage. Zonfrillo always closed off MasterChef by telling the contestants to be kind to yourselves and one another. We don’t know what battles other people are facing.