Poor access to food and malnutrition remain widespread and deep-seated in Africa’s second largest economy. The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows 25% of South Africans – 13 million people – are hungry. Another 28% of the population is at risk of being hungry. Put simply: more than half of the Rainbow Nation’s population has to worry about where their next meal comes from.
The hallways at Alpine Primary School in Mitchell’s Plain, a township 35 kilometers from Cape Town, are filled with shrieks and bursts of laughter as the boys and girls make their way to the exit. Sixty to eighty youngsters will remain behind for another two to three hours, to participate in the aftercare program organized by Run4Schools. Founded 10 years ago by Dutch athlete Leslie Pangemanan, the organization provides a safe space for children at four primary schools in Mitchell’s Plain. Gang violence is common here, and children often get caught in the crossfire.
“Criminals are constantly trying to recruit kids as drug dealers and new gang members,” says general manager Frank Steyn, a past beneficiary of Run4Schools.
Run4Schools wants to prevent this by offering better alternatives: sports and food.
“We give the kids a sandwich, some juice, and a piece of fruit,” Steyn explains. “…For many of them, this is the last thing they will eat until they return to school the next day. The other schools we work with have feeding schemes. Many children rely on those school meals. We want to give them something extra. Some will go for a second helping, to give to a sibling at home. Hunger is a fact of life in Mitchell’s Plain, because of poverty.”
The most recent Child Gauge, released in 2014 by the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, estimates that 2.5 million South African children (aged 0 – 17) live in households where hunger is part of day to day life. Child hunger is most problematic in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, where respectively 20% and 16% of children are living in households where there is not enough food.
Chronic hunger can have severe and potentially fatal implications. One of them is stunting, where a child is too short for their age.
“Over 25 percent of South African children under the age of three are stunted. This is a direct result of undernourishment in terms of energy and micronutrient intake,” says David Sanders, founding director of the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape.
Stunting is not just a matter of height. According to the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF), it is associated with an under-developed brain, which can have long-lasting harmful consequences. These include a diminished mental ability and learning capacity, poor school performance in childhood, and increased risks of nutrition related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.
Vitamin A and iron deficiencies are some of the most common nutritional shortcomings in South Africa.
“Data suggests that 44% of children under five years old are vitamin A deficient. This compromises their immune systems, and makes them extra susceptible to potentially fatal infections,” says Sanders.
The most alarming statistic, says Sanders, is that 64% of deaths of children under the age of five in South Africa can be attributed to malnutrition.
The situation is not a result of inadequate food production.
“South Africa can feed itself with what it produces… The main problems here are inadequate distribution, affordability, and access to good food. A large section of South Africa’s poor has to survive on cheap, unhealthy diets which largely consist of refined starches, refined carbohydrates, a lot of sugar, very little good protein, very little dairy, and very few micronutrients. Some of the poor can’t even afford that,” says Sanders.
The promotion of unhealthy foods, such as fast food and sugary beverages, is not helping. Sanders is concerned about the aggressive marketing of soft drinks.
“Township businesses are often offered a Coca-Cola sign with their shop’s name on it. When you visit any given township in South Africa, you will see those red and white signs everywhere,” he says. “The data we have shows us that South Africans consume three times the global average intake of Coca-Cola. It is often cheaper than milk.”
A stone’s throw from Cape Town International Airport and stuck in between highways, runways, a cemetery, and Coca-Cola signs in surrounding townships, lies Freedom Farm. Like most informal settlements in South Africa, this place – home to 600 families – is anything but what the name suggests.
Clean water, adequate sanitation, and social services such as healthcare and waste management are nothing but a pipe dream. In the meantime, hunger and malnutrition are ripping though this community like a knife through table cloth.
Every first Sunday of the month, a temporary faint light appears at the end of the tunnel. That is when Stephanie Benjamin and her soup kitchen team, known as Ladles of Love, pull in.
“We feed between 300 and 500 people that day. Children eat first,” she says. “I would like to do more but I am largely financing this out of my own pocket. Luckily, a local supermarket is helping me out. They give me food that is edible, but can’t be sold. Bread that has been pressed too hard, for instance, which would have been thrown away.”
Throwing away edible food seems surreal in a country where half the population doesn’t have the security of regular meals. It is however a harsh reality.
“We rescue 400,000 tons of food per year worth R100 million ($7.1 million) from partner retailers and wholesalers,” says Andy Du Plessis, Managing Director of Foodbank SA.
“This food, after it’s been checked and made sure it is fit for human consumption, is distributed among 450 community organizations across South Africa. They in turn pass it on to 110,000 beneficiaries. The food we rescue, translates into 12.7 million meals per year.”
These staggering figures are the tip of South Africa’s food waste iceberg.
“It is estimated that we landfill R60 billion ($4.2 billion) worth of food every year,” says Du Plessis.
Based on this figure and the Foodbank SA’s stats, one can conclude that South Africa throws away 7.62 billion meals per year, or 20.82 million meals per day. This is enough to provide each of the 13 million hungry South Africans a meal and a half per day for an entire year.
“These are alarming statistics, but what makes it even more alarming is that this situation can be avoided, as a large portion of this food is dumped before it even reaches the stores,” Du Plessis says, pointing fingers at supply chain issues such as overproduction, incorrect labelling, and damaged packaging.
Another way to alleviate South Africa’s levels of food insecurity is to change the country’s food security and agriculture policies; for instance, enabling South Africans to grow their own food and assisting small farmers, says Sanders.
According to the UN, only 2% of South African households are involved in agriculture for their personal use. In Malawi and Zambia, this is respectively 90% and 60%.
“Generally speaking, South Africans purchase most of the food they consume. In many other African countries, however, people tend to survive on what they produce on the land,” Sanders says. “I would say that many of those counties, at least those I know, have more programmes in place to support small farmers. In South Africa, there is very little of that. Here, small farmers are completely neglected. An added problem is that government has done inadequately in terms of land reform.”
As the food wastes away, so do the frames of the country’s hungry.
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