Covid-19: Hunger is never on lockdown

Food security programmes have attracted greater attention from social investors in recent years. This trend is likely to continue, given the socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Paul Pereira

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the early 2000s preceded the much-expanded Sustainable Development Goals of today. South Africa was widely hailed for meeting, ahead of a 2015 target, its primary MDG target of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Current data from the fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises suggests that 55 countries are, or soon will likely be, grappling with acute hunger. South Africa is not among them[1].

Yet the 2018 SA Survey of the IRR’s Centre for Risk Analysis reported that fully 22% of households struggled with food inadequacy in 2016. And an average of 15 400 children under the age of five years were admitted to hospitals each year from 2013 to 2016, suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Why this disconnect? It is likely because SA’s social grants system quickly wiped out critical hunger and obviated any danger of localised famine[2]. But that is not the same as wiping out malnutrition – as a full tummy does not always equate to healthy eating, and obesity rates, among other things, bear this out.

Nutritional deficiency is sometimes described as a “silent hunger”, with the Grow Great Campaign finding that 27% of SA children under the age of five years being chronically stunted. Indeed, the quality of nutrition in a child’s first 1 000 days can have consequences in all manner of life chances right down the line.  

This speaks to government’s keenness for the National School Nutrition Programme to be expanded across early childhood development centres in addition to Department of Basic Education (DBE) sites currently served[3]

National School Nutrition Programme

The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) of the DBE is SA’s second-largest State social benefit programme, after social grants.

It targets the three lower quintiles of public schools, and is the “Big Daddy” of nutritional interventions aimed at children in SA.  

  • The NSNP programme covers in-school feeding, and feeding at NPOs in some unregistered community early childhood development (ECD) centres. The objective is to “meet educational goals”.
  • 9,2m schoolchildren are on the NSNP on school days.
  • +75% of all children in public schools receive NSNP meals.
  • The NSNP uses well-developed monitoring and evaluation processes.
  • The programme is based on nutritional guidelines. Meals consist of protein (such as soya, fish, eggs, milk, sour milk, beans, lentils), fresh fruit and vegetables, and a carbohydrate/starch.
  • The NSNP cost-per-child is R2,60 for primary schoolchildren, and R3,21 for high schoolchildren.
  • +75% of food handlers are women. Training certification is required for their work, which is seen as skills development and job creation. All are paid.  

The NSNP is currently suspended because of the closure of schools, and the DBE is working out how best to reintroduce it through the rest of the year. This could include a mix of on-site school meals, and handing out food hampers for home-use.

Small farmers, and food hampers

A recent Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action study says that a typical family of five (three adults, two children) needs to spend a minimum R4 000/month (Pmb prices) on food to get enough calories for healthy living. Few households have food budgets of that size. Where people are spending, it’s is on processed foods primarily, which often mitigates against healthy eating.

Similarly, food hampers handed out through State and NPO channels aren’t always made up with their nutritional value being front of mind. Meanwhile, should the handing out of food hampers become a permanent, large-scale State programme, this would likely undercut demand for produce from community-based small-scale farmers, and would act to the benefit of large-scale farming and food-manufacturing enterprise.

That would act against food gardening and small-scale farming currently used in the NSNPs supply chain. For better or for worse, then, it is unlikely that SA would meet the National Development Plan’s 2030 goal of one third of SA’s agricultural output coming from small farmers[4].    


  • On 26 April 2020, a Human Sciences Research Council Covid-19 Survey was released, finding that 34% of respondents had gone to bed hungry during the lockdown. This was up from 28% only a fortnight earlier.
  • The survey found the situation is most dire in homes in informal settlements without a yard, where 46% of respondents said they had gone to bed hungry, followed by 42% in backyard township rooms, and 40% of respondents in hostels or student residences.
  • Just under a quarter (24%) of respondents had no money to buy food. For residents of informal settlements, the figure was 55%[5]

At any rate, it is clear that the deleterious effects of C19 on nutritional health could be substantial over the long-term. It clearly makes more relevant the Sustainable Development Goals that underpin the 2016-2025 UN Decade of Action on Nutrition.

Nevertheless, we should be careful not to overstate the immediate fallout from the C19 economic shutdown. Earlier this month, an outside member of the national Department of Health’s Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee caused a media flurry when she said that “We are seeing children with malnutrition for the first time (at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital). We have not seen malnutrition for decades and so we are seeing it for the first time in the hospital”

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize retorted that: “There has been a reduction in the number of cases of malnutrition that have been seen at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital POPD and the total admissions during the month of March and April 2020, when compared to the previous four years. To illustrate this, in April 2019 there were 2 885 patients seen and 500 admissions. However, in April 2020 there were 834 patients seen and 146 admissions… This emphasises the warning we have been to the media and public not to just rely on anecdotal evidence. This ends up causing unnecessary anxiety to our citizens”[6].

Nutrition-related corporate social investment

Companies that currently list funding/donating product to schools, NPOs, institutions; or fund small agricultural development in their annual reports:

  • British American Tobacco
  • Kelloggs
  • KFC (Add Hope)
  • Massmart
  • Pick n Pay
  • Pioneer Foods
  • RCL Foods
  • Shoprite Holdings
  • Tiger Brands
  • WesBank (FirstRand Foundation)
  • Woolworths.

The most comprehensive current overview of CSI expenditure in SA is found in the 2019 Business in Society Handbook, published by Trialogue for the 2018/19 financial year[7].

Research covers 100 top-spending CSI programmes of JSE-listed companies, multinationals operating in SA, and state-owned enterprises. From this, extrapolations are made to try include smaller CSI programmes in research conclusions. Trialogue has undertaken this annual research since 1998.

In 2019, the four most supported developmental sectors were:

  1. Education (50%)
  2. Social/community development (15%)
  3. Food security and agriculture (9%)
  4. Health (7%).

It is the first time that “food security and agriculture” is more popular than “health”. We might expect that programmes related to food security and good nutrition will receive even greater attention from thoughtful social investors in the years ahead.  

  • Pereira runs WHAM! Media, strategic communication consultants to the Tiger Brands Foundation (TBF). May 2020. Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the TBF.  

IMAGE CREDIT: Rebecca Hearfield (RM Photography & Video)/Tiger Brands Foundation


[2] Almost 11m people receive regular (non-covid-19-related) State grants, sharing +17m grants between them.

[3] The feasibility, potential risk and rewards of such an expansion of the NSNP is a matter of national import – both to the public and the private sectors, and deserves close attention from social investors.

[4] Senior CSI manager of nutritional programmes (pers comm.) Telephonic conversation with the writer. Johannesburg. 8 May 2020.




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