Can we solve hunger in South Africa?

When people’s need for water, food and shelter isn't met, the result is catastrophic for the individual, their family and society. Food insecurity and violence are close companions, a connection exposed in South Africa during the COVID-19 lockdown when conflict over food parcels arose. Hunger, uncertainty, fear and a legacy of unfairness interacted in a toxic mix leading to public violence and anger.

In South Africa food insecurity has been found to double the risk of men’s perpetration of intimate partner violence, because food insecurity affects our mental health and relationships.

Hunger wasn’t caused by the spread of COVID-19, but measures to contain the virus have exacerbated a long-term pandemic of inequality and poverty. The South African Demographic and Health Survey 2016 says the physical growth of 27% of children under five in South Africa is stunted because they don’t get enough nutrition.

The effects of poverty and hunger mean that globally, more than 200 million children in low- and middle-income countries don’t achieve their potential. Not having enough to eat affects children’s health and their cognitive, social and emotional development. These factors combine to entrench intergenerational poverty and inequality.

Nutrition is critical to educational achievement and success in the job market. So failing to ensure all people in South African have enough nutritious food has devastating consequences for our development as a nation.

In SA food insecurity has been found to double the risk of intimate partner violence by men

Personal safety and national development are mutually dependent, and hunger is one of a complex cluster of social problems. COVID-19 has laid this prevailing reality bare. But the virus also presents an opportunity to tackle hunger, not least because food security has finally climbed up the agenda for business, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donors.

AgriSA told ISS Today that the problem isn’t with food supply, but with the lockdown restrictions distorting markets. South Africa is producing as much food now as before COVID-19 and the lockdown. The problem is people’s inability to access and afford food.

One challenge is the lack of reliable information about the scale of the problem and the number of people needing food support. Another is high food costs. While the price of basic goods has risen only marginally since March, low-income households face higher prices because lockdown has restricted their ability to buy from informal traders, or shop around.

The crisis is forcing all sectors to move faster, work together and rethink food supply chains

There’s a significant shortfall between the value of social grants and the amount of money a household needs to feed itself. The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group tracked the cost of 38 basic items. It found that a month’s food for an average family costs R3 470 – far more than any government grant, and far more than many employed South Africans earn.

There’s also the risk that food supply will become politicised, with recent reports of local councillors favouring political party members for food parcels. The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Each One Feed One campaign has witnessed how corruption at a local level negatively affects food distribution.

Then there’s the question of what it costs to mount an operation to source and deliver food parcels at multiple sites countrywide. What would an elimination of overheads look like for delivery mechanisms? And how do food providers ensure access to food in remote rural areas? These are some of the many challenges we collectively need to confront.

In South Africa lockdown has also stimulated many exciting new initiatives by social enterprises, corporations and interest groups. New collaborations have emerged between NGOs, churches and companies with a shared commitment to get food to people who need it most. Communities have mobilised to support those who cannot afford food.

There are excellent examples of how low-income communities are feeding up to 20 000 people a day

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