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Food insecurity is a reality for millions of South Africans living in informal settlements

Up to 70% of households in South Africa’s informal settlements suffer from food insecurity which put people at risk of detrimental health outcomes such as obesity, chronic diseases and mental health disorders.


Up to 70% of households in South Africa’s informal settlements skip meals or eat the same meal on most days. The breadwinners also regularly struggle to provide meals or worry about having no food or money to buy food.

And households with children are even more likely to face this dilemma of food insecurity. Our research found that the levels of food security remains significantly high in the country – despite it being a basic human right.

Although we conducted the study on a small community in Johannesburg, this is a reality for people who live in informal settlements across the country.

Census data in South Africa suggests there are 1.2 million households with 3.3 million people living in informal corrugated structures (shacks) which are not on the same property as formal brick houses. The country’s economic hub, Gauteng, has the second highest percentage of people living in shacks in the country.

In adults, food insecurity is linked to detrimental health outcomes such as obesity, chronic diseases and mental health disorders. In children, there is a link between food insecurity, stunting, poor development and decreased academic ability.

The global goal around hunger

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation defines food security as having access to enough food for an active and healthy life. This includes readily available, nutritionally adequate and safe foods. People should be able to get this food in socially acceptable ways. And to be food secure, one must also be free from worry or anxiety about having enough food for everyone living in a household.

Halving hunger in the world was the first of the eight anti-poverty millennium development goals, set in 2000. But improvements in food security have not happened fast enough or evenly across the world to have achieved this goal.

Between 2014 and 2018, 892 million people in developing countries did not have food security. Of these, 243 million lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, several studies have assessed the degree and impact of food insecurity. Three national surveys show that in the ten years to 2018, food insecurity halved. In urban areas, it dropped from 42% to about 20%.

But this trend did not remain for long. A 2017 study in three impoverished communities in Johannesburg shows that just over half of the households surveyed did not have food security. Of these, 60% were in informal settlements.

South Africa’s cost of living has risen sharply over the last ten years, with increases in VAT, petrol and electricity hitting consumers hard. Inflation rates have spiralled, with the rising cost of food being one of the main driving factors.

Food prices have risen so dramatically, it may now be cheaper to get your groceries in the UK. This is confirmed by a comparison of two major supermarkets that shows a shopping trip to Woolworths will actually cost you more than shopping at one of the UK’s premium supermarkets, Waitrose. 

Comparing prices between 15 essential items such as milk, bread and sugar, and commonly purchased meat and fish and fruit and vegetable products at both shops, found 10 items to be more expensive at Woolworths.

If you bought everything on this list, shopping at Woolworths would set you back: R562.14, while shopping at Waitrose would cost you: R527.90, saving you a total of R34.24.

There are many reasons for an increased risk of food insecurity. These include:

- poverty;

- lower levels of maternal education (primary school or none);

- unemployment;

- larger household size; and

- households that experience events that place an added demand on their budgets. This could also be related to an unexpected illness with medical expenses or a sudden job loss.

Another factor is the increasing trend of people eating more cheap fast foods and less nutritious foods.

People cope with food insecurity by decreasing the variety of foods they eat, limiting their portion sizes, and eating cheaper fast foods. Research shows this negatively affects their nutritional status.

This inevitably results in under-nutrition or malnutrition, which is a lack of adequate micronutrients. Malnutrition is a major consequence of chronic food insecurity.

Globally, more than 2.7 million children die each year from malnutrition because of food insecurity. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of underweight children and infants, with just over 24% recorded between 206 and 2018

Its child mortality rate is also high. 41 children under the age of five die for every 1000 that are born.

In South Africa, the national surveys have shown that poor children have an inadequate diet. It does not meet nutritional requirements and they eat a limited variety of foods.

Children who are undernourished are often underweight and suffer from stunting. Stunted undernourished children are at risk of poor development and decreased academic achievement.

How to solve the problem

The Medical Research Council has provided vegetable seeds to participants and local non-governmental organisations to plant fruit trees in one of the study sites.

To fix the challenge of food insecurity in the short term, social grants may help to alleviate food insecurity to some extent because it will increase household income.

But in the medium and long term, solutions such as increased employment opportunities, education and female empowerment is required to significantly lessen the burden of food insecurity.

Looking forward-

Sharp increases in the price of basic foodstuffs such as maize meal and tinned fish, allied with the soaring fuel price and municipal charges, are reflected in the latest consumer price index (CPI).

Annual consumer inflation was 4.5% in May 2019, compared with 4.4% in April.

Prices increased by 0.3% on average in May, said Statistics SA.

This was mainly driven by a 3.3% rise in fuel prices. The price per litre of inland 95-octane petrol was R16.67 in May and diesel was R16.40. Fuel prices have increased by 11.6% in the past 12 months.

A noticeable trend over 2019 has been the uptick in the prices of some basic foodstuffs, StatsSA noted.

Of the 34 products in the CPI basket that comprise the minimum food requirements for poverty analysis, 20 registered an annual increase above the 3.2% inflation rate recorded for food and non-alcoholic beverages in May. Among these, 11 showed an increase above the monthly 0.3% rise for food and non-alcoholic beverages.

Maize meal increased by 11.4% this year between January and May, and by 1.4% over    April and May.

In May, annual inflation for tinned fish (excluding tuna) was 7.4%, and monthly prices were up by 1%.

Mageu prices climbed by 8.5% (annual) and 0.6% (monthly) and cooking oil prices rose by 7.3% (annual) and 1.4% (monthly).

Fruit juice and potatoes both increased by 7.7% annually, with fruit juice registering a monthly rise of 2.7% and potatoes 0.7%.

Canned fizzy drink prices increased by 8.9% since May 2018, and by 1% from April this year.

Housing and utilities increased by 4.5% year-on-year.

Transport increased by 7.1% year-on-year (mainly due to fuel), by 1% month-on-month, and contributed 0.1 of a percentage point to the total month-on-month increase of 0.3%.


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