The Nutrition deficit on the plates of South Africans is the consequence of economic and political choices
On the 1st of February PACSA’s Research and Advocacy Coordinator, Julie Smith, made a presentation at a learning space for dieticians and nutritionists working in the public health care sector and in private practice in the Western Cape. PACSA was invited to talk through its Food Price Barometer work.
We shared an affordability framework which we have found useful to better understand and contextualise the reality faced by millions of South African families and the struggles to put good quality nutritious food on the table. The framework positions the problems on our plates as originating in the economy. These problems are caused by the types of political choices being made by the state and how our economy is structured and performing.
The presentation took the health care workers through a series of statistical slides which showed how the racial structure of our labour market and economy means that South Africa’s low and racialized baseline wage regime has not been transformed whilst unemployment levels for Black South Africans has stagnated at extremely high levels. South Africa is not creating jobs and the jobs that we do have pay workers poverty wages. This context means that Black South African households have been under severe financial pressure for a prolonged period of time and that the financial buffers to absorb shocks have either already been eroded or are close to being eroded. This affordability crisis has crashed onto the family plate. Women are forced to prioritise their expenditures, including food purchases. Women prioritise foods that fill bellies, allow meals to be cooked and for palatability. It means that diets are extremely deficient in dietary diversity – being very low in protein, vegetables, calcium, fibre, minerals and vitamins. Women don’t choose this for their families; most women have a very good basic understanding of nutrition – they are forced to eat like this given affordability constraints. The affordability crisis has massive implications for health: women are bearing the brunt of the crisis and are getting very sick. Children are presenting with more severe and prolonged common childhood illnesses which should be resisted through a proper plate of food. The framework identified that all of problems of the economy invariably end up in the public health care sector.
For PACSA the economy is at the heart of the issue. There appear to be no current useful ideas about dealing with the massive unemployment crisis at the level of the state. The two major instruments which could assist to buffer the storm in the short-term are the wage and the social grant. Neither of these two instruments is being used. PACSA’s focus is on shifting the low-baseline wage to the level of a living wage and increasing the Child Support Grant to a level where mothers can feed their children properly – there can be no future with poverty level wages and grants set below the food poverty line. Longer term we would need to reimagine and restructure the economy.
We encouraged dieticians and nutritionists to raise the alarm about what they are seeing in the public clinics and hospitals; to support campaigns to increase the Child Support Grant; and if nothing else – to listen to women. Women are carrying the crisis of the economy with virtually no support and even less understanding. Women are trying. If we can just listen and try and understand the context in which women are struggling.