As World Food Day Approaches, One In Four South Africans Are Hungry

By Daniel McLaren · 14 Oct 2014

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Picture: Jam South Africa
Picture: Jam South Africa

October 16 is World Food Day. As the 20th World Food Day since the establishment of our democracy dawns on South Africa, a grim shadow of hunger and malnutrition hangs over the gains of the democratic era.

Section 27 of the South African Constitution guarantees the right to have access to sufficient food to all people in our country. This and other socio-economic rights were enshrined in the Bill of Rights because their fulfilment was recognised as integral to the Constitution’s transformative purpose of ‘healing the divisions of the past’ and ‘freeing the potential of each person’.

Yet a growing body of research on access to sufficient and nutritious food shows that this most basic of rights remains far from being fulfilled for millions of South Africans.

Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) has developed a set of indicators to monitor and track progressive realisation of the right to food since the Constitution came into force in 1996. The 22 indicators cover multiple dimensions of the right to food and draw upon a range of South African and international data sources.

The indicators provide a picture of food security in our country today, while showing how this picture has evolved (or regressed) over the past two decades. They aim to promote greater understanding of the status of the right to food 20 years into our democracy as well as provoke fresh thinking and ultimately action to move access to sufficient nutritious food forward. In November 2014, SPII will be publishing a comprehensive report on the policies, programmes, budgets and indicators related to the right to food.

The good news is that there are fewer food insecure households today than in 1999 or 2005. Moreover, at a national level, there is a sufficient and growing supply of food for all in South Africa. The average supply of food available for individual consumption rose by 6% to 3007 kilocalories per person per day between 1999 and 2011.

The bad news is that, despite this availability of food, over a quarter of the population still live in food insecure households, which regularly experience hunger. A further quarter of the population live in households, which are at risk of hunger. That’s over 26 million people who are either experiencing or at risk of experiencing hunger.

This awful statistic is mainly due not to a lack of food availability, but to limited economic access to food among the poor. For example, annual inflation on food and non-alcoholic beverages has been higher than CPI inflation in all but one year since 2002. Between 2008 and 2014, the cost of a basic food basket rose from R336 to R480 per month.  Households in the bottom three income deciles spend on average over a quarter of their consumption expenditure on food, making them highly vulnerable to these price hikes.

In relation to nutrition, over half of rural households and almost half of urban informal households have a poor dietary diversity score. As a result of this lack of access to nutritious food, South Africa is experiencing a double crisis of both underweight and overweight adults. In 2012, 4.2% of women and 12.8% of men were found to be underweight, while 24.8% of women and 20.1% of men were overweight. These figures have changed very little since 1998.

Some of the most alarming statistics relate to children. While more children are benefitting from school feeding and vitamin supplementation programmes than ever before, the percentage of children stunted by age 4 has increased from 21.6% in 1999 to 26.5% in 2012. The percentage of children with severe stunting by age 4 has also increased. Stunting is caused by prolonged inadequacy of food intake, repeated episodes of infections and/or repeated episodes of acute undernutrition, and has serious impacts on both physical and cognitive health and development. In other words, the full potential of over one in four children born in South Africa today is being limited and denied by a lack of access to sufficient and nutritious food.

This week, Oxfam also launched a report on food security, titled 'Hidden Hunger in South Africa: The faces of hunger and malnutrition in a food-secure nation'. The report documents the lived experiences of people regularly suffering from hunger, shining a personal and human light on national statistics which themselves speak to a hidden crisis of hunger and malnutrition throughout the country.

Despite these statistics, the right to food is currently under-monitored and under-reported, both by government and civil society. It was for this reason that a civil society workshop was held on the ‘Cost of Hunger’ in Johannesburg in August 2014. This gathering brought together civil society organisations working on various aspects of food security, food sovereignty and the right to food and demonstrated a remarkably wide range of ideas and initiatives that are being pursued all over the country to end hunger and its related injustices. There was also a commitment to network the various initiatives and campaigns on food better, and where possible to support each other’s work in order to boost collective struggles to end hunger.

The continued failure by the state to fulfil its obligations to realise all South African’s right to food may be the most egregious, widespread, and under-reported human rights violation taking place in South Africa today. The apparent failure by the state to devise and implement a comprehensive, coordinated and adequately resourced response to the crisis of hunger in South Africa must be addressed.

As a point of departure, government could begin engaging meaningfully with the multitude of civil society organisations working to end hunger in South Africa. The proposed National Policy on Food and Nutrition Security has been developed largely behind closed doors and has remained in draft form since 2013. A national dialogue on this policy would ensure that it adequately reflects the complex reality of food insecurity and gets the buy in necessary from those dedicated to advancing food security on the ground.

Secondly, National Treasury could report in the budget review on food as a sector. There is currently insufficient monitoring of the food programmes currently being pursued by government. This lack of transparency and monitoring means that the performance of these programmes in combatting hunger is unclear.

On this World Food Day, we urge the government to urgently reflect on its responsibility – and constitutional obligations – to the most vulnerable members of our society. Hunger and malnutrition must be consigned to the dustbin of history. The fruits of democracy must be enjoyed by all.

McLaren is a Researcher at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.

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