Advice Column, Health, Nutrition, Parenting

Can we solve SA’s malnutrition problem?

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South Africa has constantly teetered on the edge of food insecurity and Covid-19 has officially pushed us over. While food security was highlighted during the pandemic, as the pandemic recedes it will likely become a major social and political issue as the coming year unfolds. And rightfully so.

The 2020 Child Gauge identified food insecurity as one of the main reasons why South Africa remains stuck in a low-growth trajectory. The report points out that not only are 25% of South Africa’s children stunted through insufficient nutrients for healthy growth and development but that most South African children now live in communities where healthy foods are no longer available or affordable.

Above inflation food prices are one reason for this especially if we consider that a food basket for the poor has increased by 15.3% over the past year, costing R4 051,20 on average. And the impact is certainly being felt.

An increase in destitution

Some of the NPOs we support report a dire situation on the ground. For instance, Sue Wildish, MD of The Lunchbox Fund reports that the collapse of the tourism and hospitality industry throughout the pandemic has pushed large swathes of population into poverty, with serious consequences for childhood development. It established a downward spiral in which parents were unable to pay fees into Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDCs) and consequently keep their children at home.  Those ECDCs that were able to stay open suffered from reduced capacity and teachers in turn could not be paid. With more jobs lost, even more households were pushed into food-insecurity. Schools need to be encouraged to stay open and to accept children regardless of cost so they can be in a place of safety and be fed. 

People working in NPOs further note that queues at Department of Social Development and Home Affairs have increased by 50% in most areas. This increase in destitution means children are eating low quality, low-price foods with little nutritive value. Wildish reports the impact of this as being “children who are stunted, undernourished and overweight – a triple impact”.

Anecdotally, she says, 25% of ECDCs that are unfunded by the Department of Social Development or who are not receiving support from NPOs have closed permanently, and two million children will no longer have access to pre-school educational stimulation and the meals they receive at school.

One meal a day, if that

Feedback from Kelvin Glen, Executive: Stakeholder Relations, Afrika Tikkun, is that its teams of social workers, educators and community development officers have reported an increase in the incidence of malnutrition throughout their communities. The meals served at their centres are often the only meal the children/youth receive. He believes that poverty and suffering, as well as a lack of opportunities in already overpopulated areas, lead to a rise in crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence. Afrika Tikkun believes that this is due to rising food prices, which has resulted in a lack of access to healthy, nutritious meals, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty.

He is convinced that the solution lies in upscaling feeding schemes by the NPO industry and government in the short term. Recognizing that battling fires all the time is impractical, Glen proposes a two-pronged long-term strategy: “We must solve the structural inequality in our society through long-term growth and mobilization of the youth to achieve economic independence.”

Secondly, South Africa has an abundance of fertile land and unemployed unskilled youth, the solution is ‘agripreneurship’ training in agriculture and entrepreneurship.”

Empowering the unskilled and unemployed youth to become entrepreneurs in the agriculture sector will dually address the issue of poor nutrition and create employment in the production of fresh vegetables and livestock.

Worryingly, Afrika Tikkun believes that those who are poor have already hit their breaking point. In turn, the non-profit sector is overburdened in attempting to help what has been described as a “tidal wave of need.”

Poverty: a hidden problem

Noting a reduced media coverage around food insecurity in SA – HOPE worldwide South Africa’s Dr Marc Aguirre says his organisation continues to see many families that are suffering, caused mainly by to food insecurity and hunger and that are living lives of ‘quiet desperation’ HOPE argues that food insecurity will continue to debilitate our society by increasing illness, child stunting and mortality. It increases the direct economic costs of coping with the health impacts of malnutrition and enormous reduction in human potential and economic productivity.

Aguirre offers his ‘wish list’ of what could be done in the longer term of combat malnourishment:

  • Increase the child support grant amount to levels that will allow families to put adequate quality food on the table
  • Reduce the cost of staple foods through mechanisms such as price subsidies
  • Promote local food production closer to communities
  • Continue to raise awareness through media channels about the massive and growing plight of families and children facing food insecurity and hunger
  • Continue to raise funds through mechanisms such as the Solidarity Fund and funding for NGOs to continue to enable them to reach the most vulnerable

While KFC’s Add Hope has provided 360 million meals to date – supporting more than 140 different non-profit organisations (NPOs) and feeding 150 000 children daily since inception, we are only too aware that much more needs to be done.

Rising food prices has a devastating impact on impoverished communities. It means less food purchasing power both in terms of quantity and quality. This has an impact on health, child development, and social and mental well-being and given that South Africa produces enough food to feed the entire population it begs the question, why can’t we solve South Africa’s malnutrition problem?

Andra Nel, CSI and sponsorship manager at KFC Africa

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