Government should consider giving the same financial support it offered at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic to save the poor from starving and to mitigate the sharp rise in food prices.
According to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group (PMBEJD), the average cost of the household food basket increased by R271.89 over the past 10 months, from R3 856.34 in September to R4 128.23 in June, forcing families to leave out many nutritious foods from their grocery lists.
President Cyril Ramaphosa took the country back to lockdown level 4 this week in response to the havoc the new Delta variant of Covid-19 is wreaking across the country, especially in Gauteng.
The problem of hunger is global. The World Bank’s phone survey across 48 countries showed that a significant number of people were running out of food or reducing their consumption.
Even before the pandemic broke out, global hunger was already skyrocketing, with the number of undernourished people increasing from an estimated 624 million people in 2014 to 688 million in 2019. These figures included those dealing with chronic and acute hunger. The drivers of this trend, the World Bank said, included extreme climate events, conflicts and other shocks to the economies of some countries.
The PMBEJD’s Household Affordability Index last month tracked food price data from 44 supermarkets and 30 butcheries in Johannesburg (Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa and Hillbrow), Durban (KwaMashu, Umlazi, Isipingo, the Durban CBD and Mtubatuba), Cape Town (Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Philippi, Langa, Delft and Dunoon), Pietermaritzburg and Springbok in the Northern Cape.
“Mothers tell us that high food prices have hollowed out proper nutrition on the family plate. This has removed an important line of defence against Covid-19 and other common illnesses. Children and women are more vulnerable to disease,” said Mervyn Abrahams, the PMBEJD’s programme coordinator.
“It is likely that the long queues of hungry people that we saw in the first and second waves requiring food support will again come to pass [in the third wave]. This is because the state has taken away all income support [grants], wages have not gone up, unemployment levels remain untenably high, jobs continue to be lost and food prices have gone up.
“At the very least, government should reinstate the support that was given in the first and second waves: bring back the top-ups to the [children’s] grants and the Covid-19 special relief grant,” Abrahams said.
He warned that the high food prices and lack of jobs could lead to social disorder and instability – as has happened throughout history.
“At some point, the restrained protesting will become more violent, the movement of goods and services on our public highways and roads will be curbed, and private property and state security will be threatened. The rights of a hungry child and her hungrier mother to exist, to survive, to eat, will become far more important than any right to private property,” he said.
Abrahams said that, when the prices of core foods increase, there is less money in hand to secure other important and mostly nutritional foods, which are essential for good health, general wellbeing and strong immune systems.
Core foods contribute 54% of the total cost of the household food basket and, at an average cost of R2 240.15 last month, these foods were very expensive in relation to the money available in the household purse to buy food, the research found.
“These foods must be bought regardless of price escalations. The high cost of core staple foods results in a lot of proper nutritious food being removed off the family plates. The consequences of high costs on the core foods have a negative impact on overall household health and wellbeing.”
The research also found that all household food baskets, except the Johannesburg one, came down marginally last month, but brought no relief to struggling households.
“High food prices continue to hurt low-income families and remove nutritious food off their plate while making families, particularly women [because women eat last and sacrifice their nutrition for their families] and children [because they need highly nutritious foods to develop properly], more vulnerable to disease,” the report said.
The high food prices were exacerbated by the increase in unemployment levels in the past year and the national minimum wage remains low.
Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of this year showed that unemployment levels had increased. The expanded unemployment rate for black South Africans is 47.9%, or just over 10 million jobless people.
“A worker’s wage must now spread further to support 4.3 people. With baseline wages so low, and the cost of food, electricity and transport so high, workers struggle to support their families even at the very basic level required to function, be productive and be healthy,” said the report.
Last month, the national monthly minimum wage for a general worker was R3 643.92. Non-negotiable expenses such as transport to work and electricity took 52.3%, or R1 907.50, of that amount, leaving workers with R1 736.42 for their other household expenses.
“The average cost of the PMBEJD basic nutritional food basket for a family of four last month was R2 859.60. On this data, if the remaining money after transport and electricity went to food, families would still have a food shortfall of 39.3% [less R1 123.18].”
The PMBEJD noted that the crisis around child nutrition continued to deepen and South Africa would face a health implosion in future if women and children’s nutritional needs were not met.
“Last month, the average cost to feed a child a basic nutritious diet cost R729.05. The child support grant of R460 a month is 21% below the food poverty line of R585 per capita, and a further 37% below last month’s cost of R729.05 to feed a child a basic nutritious diet,” the research found.
Public clinics and hospitals, the organisation warned, would be overrun by “run-of-the-mill illnesses” that would usually be staved off by a regular nutritional plate of food.