Maverick Citizen: Hunger

Food prices continue to increase with no clampdowns in sight 

By Shani Reddy 10 June 2020

Despite strict guidelines by the National Consumer Commission, retailers in vulnerable communities continue to inflate the prices of basic food items. Hunger, which has increased by nearly 3% in South Africa, is fast becoming one of the greatest threats in the fight against Covid-19.

The United Nations and the World Economic Forum have warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could result in nearly 265 million people not having reliable access to nutritious food – double the current number. 

According to a report by Statistics South Africa, hunger has increased by nearly 3% since the start of the nationwide lockdown.

As previously reported, major supermarket chains such as Pick n Pay, the Shoprite Group, and Food Lovers Market have not increased prices drastically and according to them, have only done so because of the end of promotions and supplier-driven increases. 

However, smaller, locally owned markets which are mostly based in vulnerable communities have seen exorbitant price hikes on basic food items. Maverick Citizen previously reported that markets in KwaZulu-Natal had seen increases as high as 7.8%.

In Cape Town, food prices have increased exponentially, affecting civil society groups’ ability to adequately stock food hampers.

Henriette Abrahams, chairperson of the Bonteheuwel Community Forum which provides food parcels in Jakes Gerwel Drive, Epping, and Valhalla Park, says the price increases are hitting the organisation hard.

 “It’s getting terrible out there,” says Abrahams.

According to Abrahams and data collected by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group (PEJDG), rice has increased by 28%, sugar beans have gone up by 18%, white bread by 15%, brown bread by 14%, cooking oil by 11%, and white sugar by 6%. 

Vegetables have been subject to the most dramatic price increases, with onions increasing by an unfathomable 58%.  Carrots and cabbage have been subject to a 22% price hike, spinach 13%, and tomatoes 12%.

These increases have occurred over a short period of time (around three months) and are exorbitant when compared to large supermarket chains such as Checkers, which saw the cost of onions increasing by 23% and carrots by 13% between 2019 and 2020. 

“We have personally witnessed and experienced these increases as we are bulk-buying for our 34 feeding schemes in our area on a weekly basis.

“The prices of sugar, rice, potatoes, onions, beans, and lentils have hit us really hard,” said Abrahams.

Abrahams said they purchase from local wholesalers such as Elite, Devland, and Giants. 

Bash Ahmed, a Giants spokesperson, attributes these increases to suppliers and the end-of-cycle deals. 

“If a supplier’s price goes up then we have to increase our prices, and when it goes down then we decrease our prices. Us, as an independent company, have a lot of our own issues as far as corporate is concerned,” says Ahmed.

Ahmed adds that “in cases where some of our competitors are cheaper it is because they bought three to four months’ worth of stock [before lockdown was imposed]. Certain companies that we buy from attribute their increases to the end-of-cycle deals. 

“We genuinely try to keep our prices lower, but there are instances where our corporate competitors are better.”

Several attempts were made to contact Elite and Devland Hyper, but no response has been received.

Such drastic price hikes have had a negative impact on the content of food parcels.

“We have at times chosen cheaper or replacement products or settled on a replacement menu. We hardly buy beans and lentils anymore since it’s too expensive,” adds Abrahams.

Abrahams explains that there are some weeks where they cannot issue both potatoes and onions as their budget won’t allow for it.

There has been little government intervention in the regulation of food prices. Abrahams said that “as civil society we need to intervene. Government has to put its foot forward and take on these retailers and mega farmers that are selling food so expensively.”

Abrahams went on to say that “what we need to do is take on the retailers and the agents that are profiteering in the value chain. 

“We cannot have a situation where we have a pandemic and such hunger in our country and globally. 

“The retailers are not being taken on for the massive amounts of profits that they are making on basic food items.”

However, earlier this week, Daily Maverick reported that blame cannot be wholly placed on supermarkets as they too are subject to strict regulations and the Competition Commission.

The struggle against these exorbitant price hikes is clear within vulnerable communities. 

Memory, a domestic worker residing in Dunoon, says that feeding her family of four has become increasingly difficult. 

“Mealie-meal, rice, and sugar have become very expensive. We can’t eat too much because we will run out,” says Memory. 

Memory adds that there has been no effort by the government to provide the community with food parcels and she worries what will happen should South Africa go back to Level 4 or Level 5. DM/MC

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