Changing our behaviour to improve food security

JULIAN MAY

DESPITE South Africa’s food secure status at national level and the evidence that the country produces more food than it needs, there is a worrying degree of food insecurity at household level. The 2017 Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) report “Towards measuring the extent of food security in South Africa: An examination of hunger and food inadequacy” reveals that 20% of households did not have access to adequate food during the period studied.  

The perturbing reality at this juncture is that the situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the lockdown, and we are therefore more likely to experience the loss of lives due to malnutrition. 

Food security is a human right enshrined in our country’s Constitution.  Children, in particular, have the absolute right to adequate nutrition, yet findings by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization show that, around the world, young children and pregnant and lactating women are the groups most vulnerable to malnutrition. 

The Stats SA report shows that child hunger is an ongoing challenge in South Africa, and that more than half a million households with children aged five years or younger experience hunger.

South Africa produces 20% more food than required for the dietary needs of its people, yet about a quarter of the population live below the national poverty line, and about half are food insecure.  Simply put, they are at the risk of not having enough food, or nourishing enough food, to eat. 

Records indicate that 15,5% of babies born in South Africa have a low birth weight, and maternal under-nutrition is responsible for 3,5% of these low weights.  Twelve per cent of deaths in children under the age of five can be attributed to underweight and sub-optimal feeding practices, which are also the reason for a percentage of disability-adjusted life years in children younger than five.  (The World Health Organization uses disability-adjusted life years, which include years lost due to premature death and years lost to disability or ill-health, to measure a population’s disease burden.)

A further concern is South Africa’s high prevalence of diarrhoea and diarrhoeal deaths in children, many of which can be attributed to poor hygiene and sanitation. Equally disturbing is that one quarter of children less than five years old are stunted – and this was before the pandemic.  South Africa is an unusual country, which, while wealthy, has a high number of children suffering from chronic malnutrition owing to high income inequality. 

It is worrying that half of households in informal areas, rural areas and townships could not afford to buy essentials before lockdown level 5.  Even worse, the percentage of respondents who reported no income increased from 5,2% to 15,4% by the sixth week of national lockdown.

Dropping the levels of lockdown has reduced the number of people going hungry. Market research company Ask Africa reported that the percentage of people who went hungry or without food for a day moved from 41% under Level 5 to 34% under Level 3.  

The monthly National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) recently found that adult hunger was higher than child hunger, a trend that has never been seen in South Africa before, and suggests that adults may have been shielding children during the lockdown. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa has not focused sufficiently on children, pregnant women and children that are not yet born.  It is estimated that, during the lockdown, about 620 000 women would have been pregnant, and 330 000 children born, but NIDS-CRAM research shows that 16% of pregnant women and mothers of infants have not gone to a clinic in two months, possibly for fear of being arrested or catching the coronavirus.  Twenty-two per cent of people needing acute health care did not seek it.

Government has not succeeded in delivering emergency food aid.  During the lockdown, approximately three times as many food parcels have been delivered by civil society than by government.  Civil society needs as much support as possible.  

And we need to keep the healthcare system going.  There are signs that in some provinces the system is struggling to cope with the numbers of people that require hospitalisation and high levels of care as a result of COVID-19.  This is said to be the reason for South Africa banning alcohol and tobacco sales (we are the only country in the world to have done so).

Support for social protection programmes such cash grants, school feeding schemes and early childhood development is also crucial.  The government has made a difference by topping up basic child support grants, and many recommend that it continue to do so for another six months.  

Across the world, COVID-19 has persuaded people to think more carefully about changing their behaviour.  I am of the view that we also need to persuade the private sector, NGOs and government officials to change their behaviour, for example, by prioritising the sale of food that is healthy over food that is profitable, and favouring community-driven approaches over top-down directives.

We also need to give adequate attention to high-risk environments where it is difficult to limit people’s exposure to the virus through social distancing and ventilation.  If we are to reduce infections we have to limit the number of passengers in taxis, enforce physical distancing in queues and forbid public events of any kind in closed or confined spaces.

The world is in an unprecedented situation in which unprecedented moves must be made, and we should be ready to acknowledge mistakes and improve our individual and collective behaviours. 

Professor Julian May is the Director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape.