After not receiving any government food parcels, one Western Cape farming community pulled together to provide their own Covid-19 relief. For the fifth article of a six-part series on child hunger, Kathryn Cleary spoke to a few women from Elsenburg who have distributed their own food parcels and started soup kitchens to feed hungry children and families in their community.
Throughout lockdown, residents of the small farming community of Elsenburg outside Stellenbosch watched on their television screens as people in the more urban areas fought for government food parcels. Community members say they never got any such parcels.
So a local community organisation, Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement, stepped up and took action. The organisation provided food parcels and meals to the most vulnerable in their own and neighbouring communities.
During the hard lockdown many women in the community lost their jobs as farmworkers, but did everything in their power to shield their children from facing extreme hunger.
Ouma Magrieta van Rooyen is one of them.
As the summer sun beats down on the brick houses of the small farming community, her smile spills over the upper corners of her mask. She tells Spotlight about a young boy who went door to door asking for food, but as the lockdown extended his meal requests became more specific. If she gave him bread with jam, he wanted it with peanut butter, she says laughing. If she gave bread with peanut butter, he had the cheek to ask for cheese and tomato, she adds. No matter the case – be it jam or peanut butter – Van Rooyen, like the other women in this community, always ensures that the children are fed.
“Any mother would,” exclaims Alvira Erasmus, an unemployed mother of three.
These women are the strongholds of Elsenburg, says Wendy Pekeur, Ubuntu Rural’s coordinator and founder. The organisation distributed food parcels to vulnerable households and established several soup kitchens and food gardens. It started the gardens recently as part of the community’s long-term plan for food sustainability, or “sovereignty”, as Pekeur prefers to call it.
Pekeur and the women of Ubuntu Rural distributed more than 1 000 food parcels throughout the Winelands area, an intervention that was made possible through small bits of outside funding and Pekeur’s own pocket.
“Government didn’t even bother to bring food parcels,” says Erasmus. “If it wasn’t for Wendy, we wouldn’t have survived.”
Strict criteria for government food parcels
According to the Western Cape social development department, 10 564 government food parcels were distributed in the Winelands region between April and October. It is not clear if any of them reached the Elsenburg community because the department did not respond to Spotlight’s specific question about this. However, it says that its food relief programmes prioritised – but were not limited to – persons who were not receiving any other form of state assistance, such as grants.
Department spokesperson Joshua Chigome says that providing emergency food relief during the pandemic goes beyond the usual interventions and legislative mandate of the department.
“The distribution of what was initially 50 000 food parcels is provided once-off to support a family of four for one month during the lockdown and is based on set criteria to ensure that this limited number of food parcels reach the most vulnerable people. We must add that this initiative is not there to replace, but rather serves to supplement, other initiatives implemented by the state social security agency, non-governmental organisations, local government and national government during the Covid-19 lockdown,” he says.
Chigome says that families in need of food parcels were requested to apply for them by calling a call centre. The requests were then assessed by the department based on a set of criteria.
The criteria included families who had been affected by Covid-19, such as a family member who had tested positive and was quarantined in their home, or if a family member tested positive and could not sustain themselves.
Other criteria included those with chronic illnesses who could not sustain themselves and had been referred to the department for food parcel relief by a clinic or health practitioner.
A last criteria was for persons or households with insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period, who were referred by a registered humanitarian relief agency.
Elsenburg’s own food parcels
In Elsenburg, the group of women carefully selected families who would get their non-government food parcels. This included single mothers, families with children, and those who were unemployed or did not receive a grant. The parcels contained kitchen staples such as maize meal, rice, beans, tinned fish, oil and a vegetable such as butternut.
Fresh fruit, spices and soup powders had to be purchased separately, says Pekeur.
Despite living on a farm, this community seldom sees any fruit. During lockdown, Pekeur says she picked oranges from some trees near the Cape Town airport. These rare treats were distributed to children and older persons to help boost their immune systems.
Food parcels as a fundamental intervention
During the lockdown and pandemic, food parcels are one of the best ways to address hunger and the nutrition needs in households. In a time of crisis and severe food shortages, and in South Africa, where many people do not have the means to buy food, there is an imperative to provide food aid, says Dr Chantell Witten, a lecturer at the University of the Free State’s faculty of health sciences.
Witten is also nutrition lead for the SA Civil Society for Women’s, Adolescents’ and Children’s Health, a civil society group advocating the health of newborns, children, adolescents and mothers.
“It is a human rights violation, especially when we know that women are shielding their children and families from hunger. This way, breastfeeding mothers who have other children are bearing the brunt of feeding their breastfeeding child and sacrificing food to feed their other child/ren,” says Witten.
Providing food parcels is one challenge, but making sure they contain adequate nutritional content is another, especially because fresh fruit and vegetables are more expensive than starch staples like maize meal. Witten says to improve the nutritional content of food parcels, particularly for breastfeeding mothers and young children, they should contain staples such as fortified maize meal, flour, rice and oats, as well as legumes including split peas, dried beans and lentils. The parcels should also contain tinned fish, powdered milk and multiple micronutrient supplements or powders to add nutritional value to basic foods.
Chigome says the department will continue providing a safety net for food insecurity through existing programmes, such as those for the early childhood development sector, as well as for care centre programmes that cater for older persons, those with disabilities and child and youth.
“We have made available R4 million to support 100 community-based kitchens and R10 million to create work opportunities to provide a safety net for vulnerable families,” Chigome says.
Making food parcels child-friendly
Spotlight also spoke to a few young reporters from Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital’s RX Radio, a radio station by and for the children at Red Cross. The children have their own ideas about food parcels. They want food parcels with more fruits and vegetables to keep kids healthy and build strong immune systems. There should also be smaller parcels that children receive at schools so they can carry them home, they say.
“Children need nutrition [from] fresh vegetables and fruit. People can make a healthy cooked meal with the vegetables. They can even give vitamin tablets [in the food parcels] to boost the immune system a bit. When you do not eat a proper meal you feel weak, and [fresh fruits and vegetables would] be of great help,” says 15-year-old Saadiq.
“They should make smaller-sized parcels that can be delivered at the children’s schools so that it is more accessible for them and easier to carry home,” adds 11-year-old Naseerah.
Spotlight previously reported that civil society organisations were pushing the national basic education department to provide food parcels to learners to ensure that pupils are fed on days that there is no school and on the weekends. So far, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape are the only two provinces to have implemented this measure.
Saadiq says that while food parcels are effective, some people do not have electricity or gas to cook at home, and that government needs to consider this challenge. This is one issue the Elsenburg community also faces. During hard lockdown the community had little gas to cook, says Pekeur, so the women had to collect wood to cook outside.
The fruits of their labour
Meanwhile, Clara Davids took Spotlight to the community’s newly established food garden. Among the women, Davids is the one with green fingers, and when she is not tending to the garden she is cooking and serving food in the soup kitchens.
“Making food for hungry people makes my heart sing,” she says, smiling.
The bounty in the garden is impressive and includes beetroot, broad beans, wild garlic, fennel and kohlrabi (a vegetable similar to a turnip). The women had their first small harvest, setting themselves up with enough fresh beetroot to supply the soup kitchens for about another month.
Davids proudly pulls an unusually large beetroot from the soil. The trick is to plant them far apart from each other, she says, to give them space to grow.
The provincial department will continue to provide food relief through its existing food relief programmes, which include 92 community nutrition and development centres, says Chigome.
The closest centre to Elsenburg is about 14km away in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch.
“In crises we need food aid and feeding centres,” says Witten, “then development approaches such food for work, food gardens and homestead food production. All these should be coupled with food and nutrition education,” she says.
When kids go hungry is a six-part series looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. This series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards
This article was produced for Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest