Maverick Citizen

Food Justice

GUEST EDITORIAL

World Hunger Day — a chance for South Africa to vote for food justice

World Hunger Day — a chance for South Africa to vote for food justice
A South African girl marks her place in a line as she waits for food in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa. 28 May 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Nic Bothma)

As we all make our choice of who to vote for tomorrow, we need to remember that our vote can do a lot to improve the lives of all South Africans. Today is World Hunger Day, a day that most of us probably never felt the physical pains of, however, as hard as it may be to digest, the reality of the devastating food insecurity that 2.1 million households face, affects us all.

South Africa faces a nutritional crisis of a double burden of under and overnutrition. Over half a million South African households that have children under five years old face hunger every day.  This has led to a quarter of our children being stunted (an indicator of chronic malnutrition).

Stunting does not only disadvantage the individual into adulthood but also ultimately affects national development due to its health and economic consequences. Children who are stunted at two years old are likely to be stunted as adults. They are also at high risk of developing chronic diseases and obesity in adulthood (let’s not forget that 1 in 8 South African children under five years are already overweight or obese). As these kids’ brains have not developed properly, a magnitude of intellectual issues persist such as reduced cognitive ability, fewer schooling years achieved, poor attainment of job opportunities, and lower wages later in life.  This proposes many economic consequences for individuals, households, and our country, including higher healthcare costs.

What can we do to improve the nutrition of our children?

Whoever our leaders are after tomorrow it is imperative that they urgently place nutrition into the political agenda. Nutrition is the cornerstone for optimal development and good health, and we need interventions that address childhood malnutrition and our unhealthy food environment to break the cycle of poor nutrition perpetuating poverty.

It may seem paradoxical to suggest regulating and controlling the food and beverage industry and manufacturers on World Hunger Day — we need their food, right? The reality is that although there is plenty of food and products produced and available, the unjust food system in South Africa does not allow for nutritious food to be accessed by all South Africans — especially the most vulnerable of all being our children.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Indigenous foods study busts ‘poverty’ myth – they could help plug nutrition gap and control diseases

Luckily Heala has a few suggestions of what can be done to improve the nutrition of our children…

By prioritising an increase of the life-saving child support grants to meet the food poverty line, and extending these into maternity support we would be able to help more South African children get access to nutritious food. By helping a caregiver have more purchasing power, they will be able to help feed themselves and their infants and young children better. This assistance can start from birth, promoting the confidence in the mother to breastfeed their baby and providing nutritious foods when the baby is ready for solids. We know that these grants can have a significant impact on reducing stunting.

Of course, we acknowledge that we all need help in making informed food choices with the money that we have — so ensuring that the National Department of Health implements the Front of Package Warning Labels (FOPWL) on unhealthy food products to help us understand which foods we should avoid and spend more money on those that are nutritious.

Another suggestion is for the government to prioritise subsidising healthy food, which is often more expensive than unhealthy food products that too many South Africans are forced into buying because of affordability. These subsidies have been shown to increase the consumption of healthy foods.

Will I, a taxpayer, bear the brunt of supporting these causes? 

Many nutrition and food experts agree that food environment policies, specifically health taxes such as the Health Promotion Levy (HPL) in South Africa, a taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages can reap a triple-win generating revenue for the Treasury to fund interventions, improve health equity, and reduce healthcare costs. Since its inception in 2018, the HPL has generated over R13-billion for the National Treasury. This has been achieved at a lower-than-recommended rate (all while successfully stopping people from buying unhealthy sugary drinks). If the HPL could be increased to the minimum recommended rate of 20% we could see double this income and rewards which could fund many nutrition-related interventions. So, no, if the National Treasury uses this money well you the taxpayer should not have to bear the brunt.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

So, what now? 

Tomorrow is an important day, and we all have an important decision to make. Let’s think about which party has thought about how to improve access to nutritious food in all households. Imagine what South Africa could achieve if we have a nation that allows equitable access to nutritious food fueling a prosperous and powerful population of healthy children and people. DM

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