By Nompumelelo Runji

South Africa is a food secure country, meaning that food is readily available, is affordable and is of an acceptable quality. And so, how does a food secure country like ours face the crisis of child hunger and the persistent triple burden of malnutrition?

The Business Day Dialogues in partnership with the Kondrad Adenauer Stiftung and Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa deliberated on the role of ethical leadership in addressing child hunger.

Speaking from an interfaith perspective Anglican Archbishop Dr Thabo Makgoba reported that by 2020 one in five households experienced moderate to severe hunger. Also, that during the Covid pandemic 10 million adults and 3 million children experienced hunger, with around 2,5 million adults and half a million children experienced perpetual hunger almost every day.

Dr Chantell Witten Dietitian at the Centre of Excellence for Nutrition-Northwest University highlighted that malnutrition in children and stunting are directly linked to poverty.

“It’s not only about children’s weight and height but brain development. So, we know that there is a direct link between children that are stunted and cognitive development”, she said.

This means that children will not develop to their full potential, will have learning challenges which will invariably affect their ability to progress in school and excel in the job market and socioeconomically.

Stunting is especially worrying. As Prof. Julian May, Director of DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) explained:

“Stunting is a serious issue and reflects an acute malnutrition shock that is experienced either while the child is in their mother’s womb, usually in the first 1000 days after conception where the mother fell ill or did not have good nutrition.”

This suggests that malnutrition is and can be passed down from parents to children. As Dr Witten put it, poverty exacerbates malnutrition and that malnutrition results in poverty. This is the poverty trap.

Prof. May noted that unlike its Brazilian and Peruvian counterparts, SA has failed to reduce the prevalence of stunting in the past 40 years for which there is data whilst these other countries have reduced stunting by half. Until now, a quarter of South Africans are stunted.  “It’s odd that we have the same policies, but we have not succeeded in addressing stunting,” said Prof. May.

The issue of food insecurity is complex. While SA is food secure at the level of production, at the household level millions of adults and children experience hunger.

Mr Omri van Zyl, CEO of Agri SA Enterprises noted that poor households spend about 60% of their income on food and they are the most affected by food price inflation and any shocks and pressures on the food value chain such as that which the Russia-Ukraine conflict has sparked. But if we control for these pressures, SA should not be having this crisis of hunger.

A big part of the challenge lies in the food value chain. While short term food relief for poor and vulnerable communities have their place more permanent solutions need to be found. Steps need to be taken to transform the country’s food system to enable poor households to access adequate amounts of available food resources daily.

Accountability for the problem is another serious challenge. Prof Andrew Boraine, CEO of Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, framed the challenge in this way:

“Who owns the problem of food insecurity in this country? We have a minister of water who looks after water and it comes down to provincial and local government, we have a minister of energy, and we have a minister of health, and these functions are well known in government.”

In 2014, government adopted a National Food and Nutrition Policy which directed that a council, which would report to the deputy president, be created to support multistakeholder coordination. Eight years later, this hasn’t been done. Citizens have a role to play in holding the government to account and pressing for the creation of this council is a good place to start.