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How South Africa can feed its hungry children during the lockdown

Sheryl Hendriks

ncreasing demand for food parcels, looting of shops and cries from the hungry in South Africa under lockdown conditions imposed as a precautionary measure amid the Covid-19 pandemic raise concern over the plight of many in South Africa (and, more broadly, in Africa).

Even before Covid-19, many South African households faced a total lack of income, reduced income or uncertainty around retrenchments and unemployment. In ordinary times, the majority of households in South Africa live from hand to mouth. Unemployment in South Africa is already high (nearly 30% in the fourth quarter of 2019). In these extraordinary times, finding food to feed a family presents a choice between infection or starvation, leading to increasing protests and looting.

The livelihoods of the vast majority of households continue to be dominated by the triple challenge of pervasive poverty, inequality and unemployment. We know that before Covid-19, 11% of people (one in 10) experienced hunger in South Africa. At 2018 population rates, this meant that about 6.5 million South Africans were hungry. These stark statistics include children, who, according to South African law, include all from birth up to the age of majority (18 years).

In the same year, 11% of children (2.1 million) lived in households that reported child hunger. Roughly 1.2 million of these children are under the age of six years. At the last count, 28% of our children aged between two and five were shorter than expected for their height (stunted) – indicating chronic deprivation of food at their most crucial growth and development stage.

While these hunger numbers will –  on account of the impact of Covid-19 –  increase over  time, the relevant government institutions at the national, provincial and local level do have information on who the most vulnerable people prior to 5 March 2020 were. To a significant extent, programmes and systems were in existence to support them. However, the current Covid-19 lockdown conditions pose a number of limitations on these programmes.

At odds with our Constitution

The right to adequate nutrition for children forms the basis of:

  1. A number of legally binding global and African instruments creating obligations for countries (including South Africa); and
  2. A range of global and African instruments (declarations, agreements and decisions) that impose specific commitments on countries. South Africa is a party to both these types of instruments.

The Constitution guarantees that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food (section 27(1)(b)); however, this is not an absolute right as its realisation is dependent on the availability of state resources.  Notwithstanding this, section 28(1)(c) guarantees the absolute right of every child to basic nutrition – the realisation of this right places an unqualified obligation on the state to provide sufficient nutrition (without the limitation of the availability of state resources).

For each of the other five constitutionally guaranteed socio-economic rights (housing, health, water, social security and education), separate acts have been passed by Parliament. Although enshrined in the Constitution, South Africa has no statutory instrument that focuses exclusively, or in the main, on the constitutionally guaranteed socio-economic right to food security and nutrition. Yet, with unacceptable levels of hunger before the lockdown, ensuring the human rights of children to nutrition should be a core component of the disaster response.

Social protection measures already in place pre-Covid-19

South Africa has a number of commendable programmes aimed at supporting the nutritional needs of children. Some examples of these programmes include the Early Childhood Development Programme (ECD), private entities registered with the Department of Basic Education that provide daily meals and school feeding programmes that cover schools in income quartiles 1-3 from Grades 1-12, Community Nutrition Development Centres (CNDCs) and various support grants.

Approximately 32% of South Africa’s population (18,138,552 beneficiaries) receive social grants, with a total value of R175-billion per annum. At the end of December 2019, 12,702,612 children (70% of social grant beneficiaries) received child support grants, paid out to registered household heads. In addition, foster care grants (R1,000) were paid out in respect of 317,206 children.

During school terms, children in ECD and school feeding programmes receive at least one meal a day. Just less than 40% of children under four years of age attend an ECD centre in South Africa. More than 10 million of the country’s 16.5 million children aged five years and above who attend school receive a daily meal during school terms.

School feeding programmes are an efficient distribution system for the most needy children. There has been a long-standing concern about what happens to children during school holidays, especially over the longer year-end period, when children are home for over five weeks. With schools and childcare facilities closed indefinitely, these children are deprived of their right to adequate nutrition unless alternative provisions are made for them. Many of these children would also be beneficiaries of child support grants but these relatively small grants (R440 per month) may well be the only income for the most vulnerable households during lockdown.

With Covid-19 now (and for the near future) determining the context for each South African household and individual, these programmes and systems are now no longer functioning as before, and many are no longer available. The offices of the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) are closed, although call centres have been established where people can apply for help and support.

Lockdown implications for accessing help

The lockdown confines every person to his or her place of residence, except for the purpose of obtaining an essential good or service, collecting a social grant, or seeking emergency, life-saving, or chronic medical attention. Essential goods include foods for infants (below five years old) and other children (6-18 years), and more recently, also non-food goods for babies and toddlers under three years of age. Even when leaving home for these specified reasons, citizens must observe physical distancing.

It must be noted that the Disaster Management Act Regulations (the so-called lockdown regulations) have from 25 March onwards determined that “care services and social relief of distress provided to older persons, the mentally ill, persons with disabilities, the sick and children” are essential services. This continues to provide an enabling framework for the provision of food support to (among others) children.

However, a directive from Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu issued on 30 March set out measures to enforce physical distancing, the procedures to be followed and protocols observed by public, private and voluntary organisations running facilities for the vulnerable, including CNDCs. Such facilities may not permit gathering, and sitting and eating in the centres is prohibited during the lockdown period; beneficiaries are prohibited from visiting the centres, and food and related items must be prepared and delivered by social service practitioners or volunteers attached to the respective beneficiaries. With schools and partial-care facilities for children closed since 18 March, and the lockdown extended to 30 April, many children are not able to access adequate food.

Demand for food charity increasing

Provincial governments and local municipalities report that the need for food assistance has escalated. In the virus epicentres of Gauteng and the Western Cape, governments have committed to reaching the poor and prioritising families with children. The Western Cape government has allocated an extra R53-million emergency funding to ensure children from poor homes are fed. That department aims to deliver 10,000 cooked meals per day for one month and set aside R18-million to initiate a special school feeding programme this month, which will target the 485,000 existing school feeding scheme beneficiaries, with one takeaway meal a day, at approximately 1,000 schools.

The Gauteng government reports that calls from families for food have doubled in the first two weeks of lockdown. It has set aside R80-million toward a feeding scheme to fight hunger during the lockdown, feeding 2,000 families a day. But these efforts are limited in scope. Current projections are that the Covid-19 effects will only peak in September. Just how much can the government afford to provide and how will the most in need be identified? With a Gauteng population of 14.6 million, one in five households is food insecure under ordinary circumstances.

While the numbers of hungry people will swell, the existing programmes already know who the most vulnerable people prior to 5 March 2020 were and systems were in place to support them. These are now no longer functioning and available. The offices of the National Social Security programmes are closed, although provincial governments have established call centres where people can apply for support.

The practicalities of reaching hungry children

Calls to reinstate school feeding programmes under lockdown or even a less stringent lockdown period relate primarily to the safety of beneficiaries and providers alike and how physical distancing will be monitored. Instilling such practices among children is difficult. Although children are less susceptible to contracting Covid-19, we know very little about their capacity to transmit the virus and carry contaminants outside of their homes. The safety of children in communities is also a concern. Having children moving predictably between home and a place of feeding carries its own vulnerabilities and risks under lockdown conditions where criminal activities are ongoing.

Stampedes are possible with the promise of food in starving communities. Learners also do not necessarily attend the nearest school and travel to schools outside of their neighbourhood, complicating logistics around mobility and the issuing of permits for travel. In addition, such schemes are open to corruption from officials, and schools are already the targets for thieves ready to take advantage of the lack of occupation. Having food stocks available at schools may escalate looting by starving individuals and criminal elements.

Knock-and-drop mechanisms for reaching children are fraught with other practicalities. It will be tricky to deliver a meal for a child in a household of starving family members. There is no guarantee that the child will indeed get to eat the meal or benefit from eating the entire portion. Although mothers generally prioritise children’s food intakes in times of hardship, it is difficult to predict household behaviour in the current situation. School feeding programmes overcome such complexities by feeding the child away from home. This targeting mechanism has a cost-saving implication.

They are only three food banks operational in South Africa. All are situated in metropolitan municipalities. Little attention is being paid to South Africa’s rural communities, which make up 35% to 40% of South Africa’s population. Although the vast majority of rural households receive government pension age grants, these households may currently be hosting a high proportion of children who usually reside in urban areas. Furthermore, the elderly are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19, threatening the incomes of rural households.

Recent announcements by government

With a contracting economy, weak economic projections for growth and uncertainties about the employment situation after the lockdown, there is renewed consideration by Treasury on implementing a basic income grant. However, if households are targeted, the benefits of any such assistance may well be diluted by distribution among household members (even though part of it might have been intended to benefit needy children).

Recently, the Presidency reported that more than 100,000 households had been provided with food parcels and that additional families were being assisted through funding provided by the Solidarity Fund and the Disaster Relief Fund of the Department of Social Development. Furthermore, Sassa was reported to have set aside more than R400-million for the rollout of food parcels and food vouchers.

Possible solutions in the days ahead

Ensuring adequate nutrition for children as prescribed in the Constitution requires that they are ensured access to a diverse diet to sustain their age-specific nutritional requirements. Small children require five to six small meals a day. While one appreciates that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures, lockdown cannot afford to put children’s growth and development on hold. There is no overcoming the loss in human potential if we do not protect and provide for children at such times. The key to the success of this nationwide food support programme is a strong and effective overarching coordination mechanism, with visionary leadership and the full support of the Presidency.

In the spirit of moving forward together, answering the call “Thuma mina”, we suggest that the following may be considered by the Presidency working together with government, the private sector, civil society and academia:

  • Establish food banks in every district to mobilise the distribution of food to the neediest;
  • Utilise modern technology: with the widespread use of cellphones, new banking applications and the widespread use of loyalty cards it would be a simple mechanism to distribute electronic food vouchers to the neediest. These vouchers should target foods most needed to boost the growth and nutrition of children. Such vouchers would be exchangeable in both rural and urban settings;
  • Increase, temporarily, the monetary value of child support grants and increase the coverage to all children identified as vulnerable to hunger;
  • Reintroduce the school feeding programme throughout South Africa, with schools being the distribution points with 24-hour security provided by members of the South African National Defence Force. To ensure the orderly distribution of food delivery times should be staggered (eg Grades 1-3 from 8am to 9am, Grades 4-5 from 10.30 to 11.30am and Grades 6-7 from 12 noon to 1pm. Health personnel should also be present to do Covid-19 screening daily and if necessary, follow up and test household members of affected children;
  • During the envisaged partial lockdown, measures should be put in place to reactivate in a phased manner the operations of ECDs, with community health workers being responsible for regular (daily) Covid-19 screening, and if necessary, following up and testing household members of affected children;
  • Upgrading facilities at all clinics (rural and urban) to enable the distribution of nutritious takeaway food for children under the age of three who are recipients of the child support grant under the 24-hour protection of members of the South African National Defence Force; and
  • Launching a massive communication drive to inform all South Africans of the core details of the nationwide food distribution programme. Effort is needed to ensure this message also reaches the most remote rural areas, which are overwhelmingly afflicted by poverty and unemployment, and in many instances, do not have access to cellular technology and other forms of information.

Sound nutrition is essential for a healthy immune system. Acting with speed is crucial to stem the tide of hunger and ensure that our future – our children – are fed to ensure their adequate growth and development. DM

Prof Sheryl L Hendriks is head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the University of Pretoria.

Prof Nic JJ Olivier is Extraordinary Professor in the Faculty of Law, North-West University. 

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