Fears of impact on food security

Higher income residents who can afford to empty shelves could result in lower income families being more hungry or under-nourished during the lockdown according to UWC professors.

The state says food-supply chains will hold during the Covid-19 outbreak, but a University of the Western Cape think tank cautions that stocked shelves won’t solve the country’s underlying problems.

Professor Julian May, director of UWC’s Centre of Excellence in Food Security, says the hardship most South Africans face putting food on the table is a complex problem needing careful thought at this gruelling time.

Malnutrition threatens many poor households, he warns.

“Two thirds of our children live in poverty, with one-third in extreme poverty. Additionally, more than 800 000 children younger than 6 live in households that report food scarcity, with the consequent risks of malnutrition – and negative long-term effects on their health and educational outcomes.

“These are the South African families on behalf of whom we want to raise a red flag, whose circumstances won’t only be impacted by how well supermarkets are stocked. Empty food shelves reflect panicky consumer stockpiling rather than disrupted food-supply chains.”

According to projections by the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), Covid-19 could drive up the number of poor children in South Africa from 2 to 5%.

Professor May said the centre was concerned about the virus’s impact on food supply in the future.

“Little attention has been paid to its impact on the food system, but there are warning signals. These include disruption of food safety controls, price increases, and increased consumption of high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt convenience food.

“We are extremely concerned, not about the availability of food in the country per se, but rather whether that food will be available to all our citizens at prices they can afford, in places that they can access, and that this food is nutritious and safe.

“Wealthier families have the financial means to buy and store food, indigent families have neither the money nor the storage capacity to do the same.”

With the poor in danger of going hungry during the lockdown and beyond, Professor May has called for society to make sure the most vulnerable don’t starve or face extreme malnutrition.

According to Professor Stephen Devereux, research chair at the centre, children are the most in danger of feeling the effects of food shortage during the lockdown.

“One in four children in South Africa are already malnourished. This statistic shames us, as an upper-middle-income country, at the best of times. Covid-19 threatens to make it even worse.

“More than nine million schoolchildren from poor families receive meals every school day. With all schools in South Africa now closed, that vital source of food has stopped indefinitely.”

Professor Devereux applauded the Solidarity Fund and other innovations announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa but said the poor needed more.

“A designated Emergency Hardship Fund is needed that will deliver an effective and guaranteed safety net for those whose livelihoods will be cut off during the lockdown. Instead of putting in seed money and soliciting donations, the government must guarantee to replace the lost income of all individuals who face the prospect of ‘no work no pay’ at least until Friday April 17. Will this be expensive? Of course. But what is the cost of not putting such an emergency safety net in place? Household food insecurity and child malnutrition will rise. Poverty will rise. We will all lose.”