Hunger could be as big a threat as Covid-19

Vulnerable households are struggling to put food on the table as the government lockdown puts their livelihoods on hold. Vouchers and food parcels help, but are they enough to prevent malnutrition?

“People are surviving on a shoestring,” says Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance cofounder Amy Tekié, as domestic workers have been unable to buy food and pay their rent. Izwi has been providing food parcels and R500 food vouchers to its members and others in their communities. “They can make the food vouchers last for three to four weeks at times, which is a long stretch.”

Tekié says food vouchers give people a choice about what to buy while a food parcel means having more food items. Izwi members are formed into neighbourhood groups in 12 different parts of Johannesburg. Leaders from these areas identify Izwi and other community members who need help. “We are not giving parcels to people who are still earning during Covid-19,” says Tekié, referring to the restrictions on work during the government’s lockdown to contain the pandemic.

The plight of domestic workers, already one of the poorest paid groups, is worsened by “the informality of their employment, with most not registered for UIF [the Unemployment Insurance Fund]”, she says. No work, no pay applies to domestic workers, putting them at a distinct disadvantage: as they can’t work during the lockdown, they don’t get paid. This forces them to rely on food vouchers and food parcels for themselves and their families. 

“Domestic workers are falling through the cracks in terms of social assistance,” says Tekié, pointing out that migrant workers are another vulnerable group that is battling to get food parcels.

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While the spread of Covid-19 has disrupted everyone’s lives, the impoverished are hardest hit. With no income, hunger becomes a real threat. Tekié says that for the impoverished, starvation could be worse than the fear of contracting the coronavirus. She cites numerous cases of desperate pleas for help. “One woman on chronic medication has not been eating so she could save food for her six-year-old child.”

With others, Izwi is raising money through the Domestic Workers Solidarity Fund, a crowdfunding initiative. At the time of writing, 240 food parcels had been distributed to domestic workers. Overall, these parcels are one of the ways of helping impoverished South Africans combat hunger. But are they adequate, given the scale of the problem?

Hunger and schoolchildren

Also feeling the pinch of hunger are children of school-going age. Since schools closed at the start of the pandemic, they have been unable to access a daily and often life-saving meal. School feeding schemes provide healthy meals to nine million schoolchildren across the country, according to Coretta Jonah, a researcher and coordinator at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape. 

“For many children, school meals are a stable source of nutritious food. The sudden loss of this food increases the risk of poor health and malnutrition … given that parents whose children are part of such programmes have come to depend on these school feeding programmes to provide a healthy meal for their children,” Jonah says. 

An unwelcome consequence of hunger, she adds, is the likely resurgence in underweight and wasting children, which had been reduced substantially in South Africa. Wasting is also known as “acute malnutrition”, when a young child’s condition deteriorates rapidly over a short time because of a lack of nutrition. 

The Covid-19 lockdown is also detrimental to the finances of low-income families, say Jonah and two of her peers, Julian May and Winnie Sambu, in an article on The Conversation website. “If households use some of their scarce resources to buy the sanitising and hygiene products in efforts to combat Covid-19, this will come at the cost of food and other essentials. Dietary diversity may be reduced, increasing the risk of micronutrient deficiencies. 

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“Approximately 30% of children already live in households in which no one is employed. These households depend on grants, the altruism of those who are employed, and piece-meal work largely in the informal economy.”

They go on to say that impoverished families live from hand to mouth, whether from earnings or grants, and cannot stockpile like their higher-income counterparts. This leaves “their children at risk of inadequate food consumption”.

Social relief as part-time work dries up

Naledi* is 32 and from Mahikeng in North West province. She is happy to have received food parcels from community development organisation Ambassadors 4 Change. “I don’t know how to explain. This is a difficult time for us as everything stopped. I used to get a part-time job, but during the lockdown there is no part-time work.”

Naledi is out of work and her taxi-driver husband is earning little at the moment, she says. They have been surviving on their childrens’ social grants. She cares for five as they took in her sister’s three children when she died last year.

Ambassadors 4 Change empowers individuals in Mahikeng through community-based programmes such as school gardens. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, the organisation ran an aftercare feeding programme for schoolchildren. “Our primary selection [for the food parcel] is based on our list of beneficiaries from our aftercare feeding programme. We also consider child-headed households as a priority,” says project manager Angela Bukenya.

Each food parcel contains mielie meal, samp, yoghurt, cooking oil, rice, powdered milk, baked beans, tinned fish, butternut, onions, apples, packets of soup, potatoes, instant porridge, sugar and tea bags.  

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Bukenya says that the meal from the aftercare programme is, at times, the only meal available to schoolchildren. But the restrictions on mass gatherings during the Covid-19 lockdown have limited the organisation’s ability to continue providing meals to pupils. “We recognised the struggle that many families are faced with in accessing food during the lockdown. In some instances, families have lost their source of income during the lockdown, and this has placed a great strain on their ability to provide food for their families,” she says.

Ambassadors 4 Change is liasing with social workers and traditional leaders to identify families in need of assistance. It had provided aid to more than 280 families in Mahikeng at the time of writing.

Likely increase in malnutrition

Bukenya says the lockdown has created a sense of isolation and desperation for families that don’t have enough food. 

“Challenges in global and local food supply and demand means that food insecurity, especially for children, will extend beyond the lockdown period,” says Jonah. The consequences of job and income loss will extend beyond the end of the lockdown and it may take a long time for households to get back on their feet, she adds. 

Jonah says food parcels should not only contain staple foods such as mielie meal and wheat flour but also nutrient-dense fruit and vegetables, which will provide children with much-needed micronutrients. “It’s scary considering that South Africa already has high levels of child malnutrition, mainly in the form of stunting and micronutrient deficiencies,” she says. Stunting is when a child doesn’t grow and develop physically because of poor nutrition, usually determined by height according to age.

Jonah says the government’s temporary interventions to tackle the spread of Covid-19 will need to be extended beyond the end of the lockdown, so that households receive the financial support they need to buy food and other basic necessities.

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