The big squeeze gets bigger

2013-07-11 00:00

SALLY Joubert* wasn’t feeling well. She felt that she needed to lose weight and joined a gym that offered a diet programme.

It turned out that getting slim this way wasn’t so easy.

“I found that I just could not afford to stick to their recommended diet plan. All the food they recommend is low fat and high protein. Consuming lots of protein is too expensive — meat is expensive and so are the low-fat brands they recommend. The snacks they say you must eat are also expensive.”

Joubert, a single mother of two children, works in the media industry. She spends R2 500 on food per month, which is a quarter of her salary. What she and many other middle-class people are finding is that budgetary constraints are affecting their health. Even if they want to eat the right food, they can’t afford it.

As consumers struggle to make ends meet, the food they are resorting to eating is being blamed for a ballooning assortment of health problems. For the poor, this is not new — they’ve been feeling the squeeze since the global economic meltdown started in 2008.

The IMF reported earlier this year in its World Economic Outlook that 54% of South Africans struggle to afford food. Based on its own research, the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action estimates that up to 60% of residents in and around Pietermaritzburg are struggling to buy any food, let alone healthy, tasty items.

The cost is ultimately a national one: less productive citizens who are potentially a burden to the state. The UN’s food agency said last month that lost productivity and spiralling health-care bills linked to obesity cost the world economy around $1,4 trillion a year.

And consumers in higher income groups are now also finding that the range of what they can afford is narrowing.

“Vegetables are healthy,” says Joubert, “but they don’t keep you feeling full. They’re very expensive and don’t last as long as food that can be stored in a tin or in a deep freeze. Finding cheap healthy, filling food has become a real problem.”

Her priorities are milk, cereal, bread, cheese and spreads “to make sure that the kids are fed for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is a hit-and-miss affair.”

“I hardly buy meat and then only the cheapest, such as offcuts that can be used for stir-fries, or boerewors on special. I use packet soups that can be enhanced with veggies to make them more filling and I buy more pasta than before, as it is a cheap meal. I’m also buying more eggs that can be substituted for a meat dish.”

She has cut back on pricy sauces, condiments, herbs and biscuits.

Her sentiments are echoed by Witness readers who replied to a request for input on our Facebook page.

Tracy Lynne van Rooyen shops for two adults and a pre-schooler, spending R3 000 per month or 10% of her salary. This amount includes toiletries. “We don’t eat meat every night and stick to chicken, mince and boerewors, and mostly no-name brand products.”

Among the other respondents, the average amount spent on food each month per head in the family ranged from R250 to R1 800. One family spent more than R3 000 per head. Convenience is also a factor in food choices.

“Exercise is obviously the way to work off extra kilojoules. But when you are a working mother, who leaves home at 6.30 am and gets home after 5.30 pm, it is difficult to fit this in,” says Joubert.

She says her family’s quality of life is worse than when she was a child.

“I was raised in a middle-class home where we were fed meat, two vegetables and a starch for our main meal at dinner every night. But times have changed and I definitely can’t afford this every night for my family. We are all much heavier than when I was a child. I think the quality of the food was better and definitely more affordable.”

* Not her real name.

RESEARCHERS from the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (Pacsa) and UKZN recently conducted the first round of conversations with women in areas around PMB (Gezubuso, KwaDindi, S’nathing and Mpophomeni) to get a clearer picture of how people are surviving.

According to a report compiled by Pacsa researcher Julie Smith on what the women said, red meat, beans and dairy products are unaffordable.

Cheap cuts of chicken are bought for protein, but the quality is poor, and it is watery and fatty. Staples like maize meal, oil, sugar and rice are also becoming unaffordable. The women reported that the food is making them unhealthy and they are getting sick more often.

“Women indicated that their families tend to cook foods quicker and add soups for flavour to make up for the loss of real meat. More fats, salt and sugars are added to food for taste.

“Families, particularly children, tend to drink more sugar-sweetened drinks, and eat more chips and sweets. People are putting on weight, but are not healthy — rather [they] are getting fatter, and have more problems with sugar, ulcers and bones,” says Smith.

Smith notes in her report that household diets are “severely deficient in energy, protein, calcium, iron and other micronutrients”.

PACSA has been tracking food prices since 2007 using a defined basket of food as an index of food inflation (price increases).

“It is not nutritionally adequate, but it is what households are buying given affordability

constraints,” said researcher Julie Smith.

“Pacsa tracks 31 food items. The data is collected monthly from four stores in Pietermaritzburg. The food basket is based on a family of seven [this was the average household size of our 120 households] — three adults and four children.”

The average price of the basket from September 2012 to April 2013 is R1 509,91. The price of the basket has increased by five percent from September 2012 to April 2013. Overall, the price of the basket since 2007 to April this year has increased from R660,20 to R1 509,91.

USE low-cost proteins such as eggs, dried beans, chickpeas, lentils, pilchards and sardines.

Add soya mince to regular mince and soya chunks to stews. This extends the meal and allows you to use dramatically less meat for the same taste and flavour.

Grow your own vegetables,

for example spinach, tomatoes, green beans and lettuce.

For flavour at almost no cost, grow your own herbs such as parsley, chives and spring onions.

Buy fruit that is in season.

Don’t buy any unnecessary

luxuries. Don’t be tempted to spend even R2 on cheap chocolates or crisps. Save this money and you’ll be surprised how it adds up. The same goes for buying cool drinks.

From an exercise point of view for weight loss, save money on gym membership and rather get yourself a skipping rope or simply go for a walk everyday.

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