Food security remains one of the most devastating challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Food Programme has warned that more than a quarter of a billion people will be experiencing acute hunger by the end of the year. Extending lockdowns and the spread of the coronavirus, experts warn, will cause a food security crisis not seen since the Great Recession in 2007-2009.
Experts on food security and nutrition say “the pandemic’s economic impact will cause these numbers to rise. The most vulnerable groups are the urban poor, inhabitants of remote areas, migrants, the informally employed, people in conflict areas and other vulnerable groups”. As the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition recently noted, malnourished individuals with compromised immunity are more at risk and susceptible to the spread of the virus.
In South Africa, residents have clashed with the police over the distribution of food parcels and some government officials have been accused of hoarding or selling such parcels. And while President Cyril Ramaphosa has increased social grants and introduced a R350 basic Covid-19 grant for those who don’t qualify for a social grant or payouts from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, it’s still not enough to feed the millions of impoverished people in the country.
Grassroots and non-governmental organisations have stepped up their efforts to distribute food. Among the beneficiaries of feeding schemes in the Western Cape are 107 destitute families who live in the Cathkin Village shack settlement in Heideveld, Cape Town. The settlement has had no running water or toilets in the two years since it was established.
Village steering committee member Winston Hartzenberg says the schemes are playing a vital role in the lives of residents during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown as only 30% of the residents work. “Some people are pensioners here. Most are dependent on social grants. It is hard as it is here.”
Asa Brown, 56, who has lived in the village from the time it was set up, says she has been enduring an unhygienic life even during the lockdown. “Ever since we arrived here, we have been using buckets to relieve ourselves and then dig holes in the field to dump our faeces. The government just started to supply us with water from a water tank two weeks ago.”
Another resident, 64-year-old Fatima Williams, is diabetic and pleading with the government to provide the area with basic services. “I applied for three loans from the South African Social Security Agency so that I can have lights in my shack. I just wish the government can give us taps during this time. Although they started to bring water tanks, I still have to go to the queue and then carry a 25-litre bucket myself.”
She says the low-lying area has been hit by floods three times since she arrived. “I have lost everything in those floods. The problem here is that water enters our shacks from underneath.”
The Overcome Heights Feeding Scheme, Philippi Horticultural Area, Mothers4Justice, Brothers 4 Life Initiative and Muslim Hands for the Needy are delivering food parcels to residents of shack settlements and those living on farms.
The women-run scheme has been feeding more than 800 of the 6 000 residents of Overcome Heights in Greater Lavender Hill for more than 30 years. The scheme distributes between 100 and 160 parcels of food a day. They focus on the elderly, children and disabled people in Greater Lavender Hill, which is made up of seven sections. This includes a shack settlement that is an extension of Capricorn township and is located next to the suburb of Muizenberg.
The Philippi Horticultural Area is a group of farmers advocating for the preservation of 270 hectares of farm land that is home to the Cape Flats Aquifer. The farmers started feeding their employees three weeks ago. They say it was prompted by the fact that some of those living on farms do not work.
The Heideveld-based Mothers4Justice and Brothers 4 Life Initiative rely on volunteers to pack, prepare and cook food for their beneficiaries.
Overcome Heights Feeding Scheme (OHFS) coordinator Yolanda Anderson says they could not sit down and watch those they normally feed risk contracting the virus by going out to look for food. The feeding scheme has five cooking stations with five dedicated volunteers who prepare a variety of food for six hours. Since the beginning of lockdown, the scheme has been using the kitchens of residents that are close to the area to which they intend delivering food on the day. The volunteers then share delivery duties by deciding on which area to distribute to first.
Overcome Heights was established in 2006, when the ANC promised housing to all those who settled on a sandy area next to Capricorn township. The government has installed water taps and public toilets, but facilities are still inadequate for the population of more than 13 000, which continues to grow. It is one of the most racially and culturally diverse areas of the southern peninsula.
Overcome Heights is an impoverished area where most children depend on the Overcome Heights Feeding Scheme at schools, with the elderly and other residents fed at local halls.
“Since they depend on OHFS for food, I don’t want them to leave confinements of their homes looking for food while risking chances of contracting the virus. We, as the leadership of OHFS, had to put measures in place to safeguard the wellbeing of our vulnerable community members,” says Anderson.
Overcome Heights Feeding Scheme volunteer Paula Petersen says having no equipment does not dampen their spirits or deter them from cooking for a large community. “We rely on equipment such as cooking gases and pots we get from the community. I wake at 6am every day because I am passionate about feeding my community.”
Dorothea van Aar, who has three children aged 13, eight and five months, says her family has been relying on the scheme for food during the lockdown. She loves that her children do not have to go out and queue for food and risk contracting the coronavirus.
“They [the feeding scheme] bring the food home. And that makes it easy for the children to stay at home. There is no way they can contract the virus,” says Van Aar.
The unemployed mother says she had just lost her job as a domestic worker two days a week. “Because of the lockdown, I cannot go to work. I really appreciate the food I get from the feeding scheme. Sometimes I have no food at all,” she says.
Tagging along on deliveries
Philippi Horticultural Area, Mothers4Justice and the Brothers 4 Life Initiative, and Muslim Hands for the Needy are careful to maintain social distancing while delivering food. They provide masks and sanitise the hands of their beneficiaries while doing deliveries.
The farmers used three bakkies to deliver 27kg food parcels to 53 farm families on 16 April. These included flour, sugar, rice, fish oil, vegetables and bread.
Rooideure Farm resident Elizabeth Willemse burst into prayer when collecting her food parcel. “The world is in crisis with this virus. Thank you Lord for helping these people on their mission to support us, the poor. Please provide them with more food during this difficult time.”
Willemse lives in a one-room home that she shares with five other members of her family. “Our food is almost finished. We don’t work here in these farms. I wash buses but they are not allowed to take passengers now. We have nothing, not even electricity, which is a basic need. We cook food on fire. I really appreciate this food,” she says.
Philippi Horticultural Area family food basket Covid-19 response coordinator Susan Coleman says they saw the need to support farm dwellers with food parcels. “Labour tenants are the most vulnerable. Our objective is to promote food security. Only a fraction of this community is working,” she says.
Coleman says only 15% of the group’s community is working during the lockdown. “These [15%] are the people that work on farms. They earn a mere salary, which they cannot survive on. We are talking about families of seven and more. Imagine that family depended on the salary of a farm worker.”
She adds that while the extension of the lockdown is meant to slow the transmission of Covid-19, these measures also brought all forms of income to a halt for more than 70% of households in these communities. “It is our sincerest hope that this pilot will provide a model for communities and retailers nationwide to ensure that malnutrition and hunger are not added to the list of pressures already present during this crisis.”