Wednesday marks the release of the second wave of findings from the National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-Cram), and while the findings suggest that household hunger has declined by about a quarter since the release of the first findings, this is nothing to celebrate. Hunger remains substantially above pre-Covid levels, which were unacceptable to begin with.
The recent findings reflect changes between May/June and July/August. Over this period, hunger for “anyone in the household” declined from 22% to 16% and for children from 15% to 11%.
“About 20% fewer households ran out of money to buy food in June compared to April, yet this measure of food insecurity is still at least twice as high as in 2016,” researchers wrote in a report synthesising findings from a number of papers based on the survey results.
In the first wave 47% of respondents indicated that their household had run out of money to buy food in April. In the second wave this had declined to 37% for the month of June.
This decrease in hunger and food insecurity in recent months is likely due to increased economic activity with the easing of lockdown restrictions. But, on some measures, food insecurity is twice as bad now as it was four years ago.
Unfortunately, there are currently few solutions to the problem that are both viable, sustainable and which promote good nutritional health along with a full tummy.
The distribution of food parcels, social grants and the national school nutrition programme all have an important role to play, but the persistent and concerning statistics on hunger raise important questions on the efficacy and impact of these programmes.
Earlier this month, the humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers compared the hunger crisis in the Eastern Cape to that of war zones. In rural KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), community organisations grow ever more desperate for assistance to feed families.
“Things never change here,” one source in KZN told Spotlight.
“It’s always the struggle of water, food parcels and people [losing] their jobs.”
The findings of the second wave show that despite the overall decline in levels of hunger, in rural areas such as those in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal hunger remains high. It is possible that in urban areas hunger may have decreased because people have better access to social relief programmes or employment, including the informal trading sector.
Should this be the case, it could also mean that hunger or the intensity of hunger is worsening in rural areas, where access to social relief and employment are more difficult. The findings state that 20% of respondents in rural areas reported household hunger in the past week, compared with 16% in cities/towns and 13% in metro areas.
Not just hunger, also nutrition
Another stark reminder of South Africa’s failure in this area is perhaps the country’s stunting rate of 27%, which means more than one in four children are not the appropriate height for their age as a result of poor nutrition. There has been little change to stunting rate in recent years, and the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown may worsen this.
One thing the survey does not tell us is how severe child hunger is or, more specifically, how the nutritional status of children, particularly young children, has been affected.
The second wave reports a decline in child hunger from 15% in May/June to 11% in June/July, but it does not help us understand how those children who were without food for May, June and July are coping today.
For the handful of children who may be receiving more meals per day than previously reported, there are still those who are potentially getting less food and nutrition. Those children should not be allowed to fall through the cracks. Improved levels of hunger do not necessarily mean improved nutrition.
Keeping things in context
The latest NIDS-Cram findings on hunger may be encouraging, but we need to guard against representing this progress as more than it is. Overstating the progress risks removing the urgency from what is still an urgent crisis afflicting many people, especially children. The reality is that we are nowhere close to being out of the woods.
To make things worse, South Africa, like other countries around the world, may well see a second wave of Covid-19 infections, which may result in another set of social and economic consequences.
To avoid further damage to the health and wellbeing of the country’s children, government and respective stakeholders must act immediately to implement solutions that address both hunger and nutrition. Failing to do this will irreversibly compromise the future of the country’s children.
Cleary is a finalist of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards for child-centred journalism, and is currently working on a series on child hunger and how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the nutritional status of children in South Africa
This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest