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Phansi, profiteers, Phansi!

- Schalk Mouton

The Constitution guarantees the right to food and there is enough for all but a system that prioritises profits over people undermines both society and justice.

If we are serious about solving the massive food insecurity problem in South Africa, then it is time to completely overhaul the food system in the country. 

This is the view of Dr Tracy Ledger from the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), who believes that food provision should be treated the same as other services guaranteed in Section 27 of our Constitution. 

“The last time I read Section 27, nowhere did it guarantee the right to make a profit, but it does guarantee the right to food,” says Ledger, who wrote the book, An empty plate: Why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters and how we can win it back. 

“We have been very successful in commoditising food and leaving food distribution in the hands of commercialised retailers. If we treated water or education [other rights guaranteed in Section 27] the way we treat food, it would mean that we would have handed over the decision about who gets water and who doesn’t to the profit-making sector,” she says. “We all understand that this isn’t in our collective best interests when it comes to water, but when it comes to food, we do exactly that. We all carry the enormous social costs of that decision.”

Thrifty basket of food. © Nadette Voogd | 

Access and cost over quantity 

Food security, says Ledger, is not just about producing more food. It is about reducing the cost of food and making it more accessible to vulnerable communities. 

“While it may generate some employment opportunities for a few people, there is no way that establishing a couple of rooftop food gardens in Johannesburg is going to feed the literally millions of food insecure people in the city,” she says. 

According to the fifth Quality of Life survey released on 13 November 2018 by the Wits-based Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), a guaranteed, regular meal is increasingly out of reach for families living in the province’s cities. Overall, one in five households (21%) has gone hungry this year. 

Since 2014, the number of households with a monthly income of R3 200 or less that has skipped a meal in the last year rose from about 23% in 2014 to 37% in 2018. For households with earnings between R3 201 and R12 800 per month, this number doubled from 9% to 18%. 

According to Ledger, 80% of South African households do not spend enough to buy a nutritious basket of food. 

“According to dietary recommendations, a child should have at least half a litre of milk per day. That costs R210 per month, which is more than half the current childcare grant. What is the point of teaching people about nutrition if they cannot afford it?” she asks. 

Hangry – “bad-tempered as a result of hunger” 

Ledger believes poor nutrition is a problem for everyone, not just the hungry. Several thousand children literally starve every year, a quarter of South Africa’s children are classified as stunted, increasing numbers of children are both stunted and obese (this is possible when children eat too much food of very low nutritional value), and childhood malnutrition has been positively linked with an increased propensity for violence in adulthood. Society as a whole carries the resulting costs – and this in a world where we actually produce enough food for everybody; it is just not accessible to everybody. 

“If you look at our food systems from an economic point of view, things are going great. It is run smoothly and efficiently, and companies make profits. If you look at it from a social justice point of view, it is a disaster,” says Ledger. 

The hunger games 

Gillian Maree, Senior Researcher at the GCRO says that all the costs related to producing a nutritious plate of food have increased, pushing it out of reach for large numbers of Gauteng’s city residents. 

“The costs of transport, food, electricity and energy have all gone up hugely, and they all contribute to preparing a decent meal. If you consider then that a person who earns a minimum income and travels two hours to work a day, works eight hours and travels two hours back home, the chances that they would spend time preparing a decent meal – with scarce resources – are minimal,” she says. 

To add to that, our quest to mass-produce food has stripped it of nutritional value while increasing the levels of salt, sugar and fat in the products that are available and affordable.

“Access to food is a clear indication of inequality,” says Maree. “You can clearly see a divide between the haves and have nots.” 

Ledger believes giving urgent attention to these issues is not just a moral obligation.

“Ignoring these issues is putting enormous pressure on our social fabric,” she says.