Rolling blackouts worsen food insecurity in low-income communities
Food justice advocates, researchers and Johannesburg community members say rolling blackouts are changing food purchasing habits and sometimes worsening food insecurity for poor and low-income residents, especially those with children.
Flora, an unemployed mother of four who lives in Johannesburg, says when it comes to purchasing and preparing food, rolling blackouts often leave her and her children without any good options.
“Not having electricity hits me very hard,” she said. “I can’t afford to buy a gas stove or a paraffin stove. Sometimes, I buy takeaway meals for us to eat, but it isn’t always the case because even that takeaway plate is expensive and not enough for all of us to eat.
“Sometimes you’ll find that we do have a cooked meal at hand, but are unable to consume it because it’s cold, and at other times my kids will go without meals when the power goes [out] for longer periods.”
Healthy foods less accessible
Dr Jo Hunter Adams, a public health researcher and small-scale farmer, said rolling blackouts are making healthier, less-processed foods — like meat, dairy, fresh produce and other perishable items — less accessible, as people worry that they won’t be able to keep them cold.
“[For example,] people don’t buy spinach sometimes, because they’re concerned that if they don’t eat it, that’s money lost,” she said. “I think that’s amplified by load shedding.”
And if people are worried that the grocery store or spaza shop where they buy their food has not been able to keep perishable items cold during rolling blackouts, they may opt for more processed items out of fear of foodborne illness.
Dr Jane Battersby, a human geographer who studies food systems, says many low-income South Africans use older, second-hand fridges — if they have fridges at all. During her research, many told her that their fridges had broken during the electricity surges that occur when the grid comes back online, especially if they were connecting to the grid illegally and lacked good surge protection.
Community members said rolling blackouts have made it more time-consuming to purchase and prepare food since they cannot safely store perishable items in their fridges and must find time to cook when they have electricity.
Esperance Uwimana, who lives in Bertrams with her son and works at the Joburg People’s Pantry, said she can no longer shop for the week, but has to shop every day or every two days.
“I don’t want anything to go off and use my money,” she said.
Food pantries and community kitchens
Rolling blackouts are also affecting food pantries and community kitchens that provide food for low-income residents. Sandra van Oostenbrugge, the director of the Joburg People’s Pantry, said the pantry gets much of its food from large, chain grocery stores that donate items with damaged packaging or other issues that make them unfit to sell.
However, in the past several months, she said stores had donated less, opting to repackage items rather than donate them. She said this was probably a result of the economic strain that grocery stores are experiencing because of rolling blackouts.
Adams said the psychological impact of rolling blackouts affects nutrition and food consumption habits.
“I think there’s this feeling of prolonged crisis, and I think we eat differently when we think we’re in crisis,” she said. “The question is whether people settle into this as a new normal and sort of make a nutrition plan, or if… you’re just trying to get by and nutrition is not really high on the priority list.”
Nicky Dzanibe, who works at the Joburg People’s Pantry, says her diet has changed since rolling blackouts began, but she still thinks about health and nutrition. Since rolling blackouts make it difficult to keep food cold, she often avoids meat and dairy products — except for corned meat and amasi yoghurt — and instead opts for beans and vegetables.
Dzanibe said rolling blackouts are pushing her to eat more of the traditional foods that she grew up with, as they require less energy to store and prepare.
Some residents of Bertrams are turning to community gardening and more traditional cooking methods to adapt to rolling blackouts.
Trudy Motseta works at Ndawo Entle Natural Growing Site, a community garden in what used to be an illegal dumping site. She focuses on growing foods that are eaten in African countries — like sweet potato and pumpkin leaves, amaranth and groundnuts — as Bertrams is home to so many African immigrants.
Ndawo Entle has a public woodfire kitchen where community members can cook their food. Motseta said people use it when they don’t have power in their own homes to prepare food. DM/MC