Coronavirus #Lockdown Webinar

Hunger crisis: Getting food to the needy

By Zukiswa Pikoli 14 May 2020

Homeless people sitting eating on Day 2 of National Lockdown at the Durban Exhibition Centre on March 28, 2020 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

A webinar discussion looks at the effectiveness of food parcels and unlocking solutions to alleviate South Africa’s deepening hunger crisis.

On Wednesday 13 May the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign hosted a webinar to discuss the possibilities for partnership between government, the Solidarity Fund and progressive civil society.

The panelists were Dorah Marema from GenderCC Southern Africa, Tim Abaa from Ubuntu Project, Desmond D’Sa from South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), Mervyn Abraham from Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMBEJD) and Anokhi Parikh from the Solidarity Fund. The minister of social development was meant to be part of the panel but pulled out at the last minute.

The discussion centred around the idea of unlocking food commons that include small-scale farmers, subsistence fishermen etc in order for people to start local sourcing to alleviate food shortages. The issue of food parcel distribution was largely described as ineffective as a result of there not being enough parcels, a duplication of efforts which led to some people not receiving, as well as a failure of effective geo-mapping to identify the areas that needed the most relief.

Dora Marema expressed concern about the clamping-down on community organisations that had been helping feed communities before Covid-19 because of government wanting centralised distribution. She said that while all agreed on the need to flatten the curve, they rejected the approach the Department of Social Development had taken to centralising food parcel distribution. This approach excluded those who had already been doing this work and required them to now apply for permits. She asked what would happen to hungry communities in need while community organisations waited for their SAPS permit applications to be processed. She said this was “offensive to our people”.

Marema said what needed to be done is to capitalise on the work these community organisations were already doing, having identified and reaching out to households they knew needed food. She said as part of the C19 civil society coalition they were mapping small food producers and had identified what inputs they need, such as access to market and the assistance of government infrastructure and agri-hubs.

Marema added that it was important to unlock existing community resources such as school food gardens and communal food gardens in order to contribute to the Solidarity Fund and ensure that the food contained in their parcels was nutritious.

Desmond D’Sa detailed how poverty had become worse since the lockdown, especially with informal traders and workers, particularly fishermen, having been stopped from working. 

“These people are getting no assistance from government,” he said. D’Sa talked of how fishermen in Cape Town who belonged to co-ops and big companies were operating, yet very few in Durban were working, particularly those he represented. 

D’Sa said efforts to speak to government at provincial and national level had seen him sent from one person to another and had proved fruitless. He said that violence as a result of poverty “is going to kill our people”.

D’Sa highlighted that bringing in NGOs who don’t know or do not have an existing rapport with communities causes problems as they are unable to provide effective relief. He said that all communities are organised and have their own leaders more attuned to their needs. 

He said they were willing to work together with government and “government should not be coming down with a heavy hand on our people and should  allow people to go back to fishing” while observing the necessary precautions.

Mervyn Abraham focused on the affordability and prices of food, which he said determined whether or not households suffer hunger.  

He said that a monthly food basket containing 38 basic foods had, in the last three months, increased by 8% from R3,221 to R3,473.75. The national minimum wage is R3,500 which means that many could not afford food even before Covid-19. 

Abraham said before lockdown this food basket lasted a poor family three weeks, with the last week being particularly strained. Now, it lasts only two weeks because children and everyone else in the household are home all day, and the social grants increases were not enough to plug this gap. 

He said lockdown restrictions had hampered people’s abilities to go shopping and look for specials to stretch budgets. He said it was important to look at the costing composition of food parcels being distributed. He had heard these parcels cost between R1,500 and R1,700. This meant that if food generally only lasts two weeks, food parcels must be distributed every fortnight. 

Abraham was adamant that “qualification” for food should be done away with to get food more quickly into the hands of those who need it. He said that in Pietermaritzburg “not enough people are getting food in their hands”.

Anokhi Parikh gave an outline of the mandate and objectives of the Solidarity Fund. She said it was a temporary “relief” mechanism and not meant as a long-term systemic intervention. 

Parikh said its focus areas were health response through the disbursement of personal protective equipment (PPE), text kits and ventilators, humanitarian efforts as well as a solidarity campaign to unite the nation against Covid-19.

Following the lockdown announcement, the fund anticipated the hunger crisis and released R120-million for food relief, said Parikh. The goal is to reach all provinces, with a particular focus on the most deprived municipalities.  

She said their plan was to distribute food to 250,000 households through partners like the DSD and Africa Tikkun and that they do not require an ID for people to access food parcels, so migrants and refugees are not excluded.  

In closing, moderator Vishwas Satgar stated that what the discussion had revealed is that by unlocking barriers for informal traders, fishermen, small-scale farmers etc, more people would be able to feed themselves. 

Satgar said over-regulation needs to be unblocked. He said it was clear that the big food producers are pushing up prices, adding to the squeeze of hunger, and that has to be addressed. 

He went on to say that decentralisation of efforts and working with local community leadership was necessary because communities understand their own needs. 

As a parting shot, he said that food commons need to be part of trailblazing food sovereignty and that if these challenges aren’t addressed, “South Africa under lockdown will be a very volatile place”. MC

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