A serious proposal to overcome child hunger… but will we choose it?

As you read this article millions of children in South Africa will be hungry. The hunger they experience, and ironically the cheap food they eat to stave it off, is causing malnutrition and undernutrition that will damage their physical and mental health, as well as their opportunities… for all of their lives. Please don’t turn away, dear reader, this is an article about something that can be done.

In the past, South Africans used to talk of a “lost generation” of young people who sacrificed schooling and education as a result of school boycotts and political uprisings throughout the 1980s. However, another lost generation is developing before our very eyes.

Take a look at the children in your community: almost certainly some of them are hungry.

And with rising food prices, and falling employment, this situation is getting worse by the day. Whatever the cause of 14% food inflation there is a price to be paid in life. According to the Finscope Consumer South Africa 2022 Survey, reported on in Daily Maverick, “the main reason people saved or borrowed money in 2022 was to pay for living expenses, specifically food and groceries”.

Thirty-two percent of a nationally and provincially representative sample of the 5,604 people who were interviewed reported that they saved for food, while 43% borrowed money for food.


Section 28 provides “every child” with an unqualified right to “basic nutrition”. (Photo: Flickr / Julien Harneis / Wikipedia)

Adding salt to this wound, research has found that 20.4% of South African households are food-insecure and that one in five families are sending a family member out to beg, while another 46% rely on “less-preferred and less-expensive foods” – meaning cheaper and nastier.


The researchers conclude that “food insecurity remains a major health threat in South Africa”, and recommend that “public measures to address mental health should consider reductions in food insecurity as part of their strategy.” (The original research article is here).

This should not be.

This need not be.

But although there’s much sound and fury from organisations like the Competition Commission and the occasional peep from the South African Human Rights Commission, there’s not much action.

What can be done?

The carrot: a chance at a meaningful social compact on food

By all accounts a carrot is good for your health. But it’s also an example of a basic foodstuff that is unaffordable and missing from the diets of many poor people. A 3kg bunch of carrots costs nearly R30. That’s almost 10% of a Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant.

Fortunately, in the absence of real carrots a metaphorical carrot is being dangled before the retail food industry, one that if taken would win it enormous support and, for relatively low costs, provide a huge social benefit.

Despite its importance to the Constitution, to human dignity and development, there is not yet a legal definition of ‘basic nutrition’ or ‘sufficient food’.

In an article published by Maverick Citizen on Monday, David Harrison, the executive director of the DG Murray Trust, reports on an advocacy campaign being run by several NGOs to persuade the big food retail chains in South Africa (Shoprite, Checkers, Pick n Pay, Boxer and others) to reduce their prices on 10 key foods by one-fifth.

Read it here: If children can’t grow well, the economy can’t grow well

According to Harrison: “Being willing to waive their mark-ups on an essential basket of foods rated by the Grow Great zero-stunting campaign as the “10 best buys”, including eggs, speckled beans, pilchards and peanut butter – if government finances matched that commitment – will go a long way” towards closing the food gap between the Child Support Grant (CSG) and the minimum food poverty line (currently R663 per month).

“It would also support pregnant women and other families including foreign nationals who do not get the CSG.”

Harrison told Daily Maverick the campaign is proposing “a double-discounted basket of 10 ‘best-buy’ highly nutritious foods, to ensure that the CSG has the potential buying power to provide minimum nutritional requirements for children”.

“The idea is that manufacturers and retailers agree to waive their mark-ups on 10 highly nutritious foods (mainly dry foods, and one label only per product) and the government matches it with a rebate/subsidy. The combined discount could be between 20% and 30%.”

According to Harrison, “the proposal was presented at the food price subcommittee of Nedlac last week, where Cosatu came out fully behind it”. The idea is also being discussed in Treasury and the Presidency. To open a discussion about price between food retailers but not break competition  law, the campaign has also approached the Competition Commission for “clearance to convene a meeting of industry players”. It expects a response this week.

The stick: act on existing Constitutional obligations

Daily Maverick hopes the food retailing industry will do the right thing and jump at the carrot.

However, if it fails to do so, there’s always the stick.

According to section 27 of the Constitution, “everyone” in South Africa has a right of access to “sufficient food” and the state must take “reasonable legislative and other measures” to achieve this right. Further, section 28 provides “every child” with an unqualified right to “basic nutrition”.

In the face of widespread hunger these rights create the same duty on the state to take positive steps to intervene in the food market, as the government and the courts have already accepted exists in relation to the price of medicines where, for example, there is a pricing committee that annually sets single-exit prices for medicines.

In the view of constitutional lawyers the principle here is that while the mechanism might differ, the government could legally price-control a basket of essential foods, especially for children, by setting a formula for profits, requiring greater transparency regarding input pricing and so on. They could also implement well-researched proposals for a Basic Income Grant (BIG), that would also alleviate hunger and boost the economy. Unfortunately there is still a missing link: despite its importance to the Constitution, to human dignity and development, there is not yet a legal definition of “basic nutrition” or “sufficient food” that we can use as a measure for sufficiency.

In this fatal lacuna, children’s stomachs groan unheard:

Read Dr Tim De Maayer’s article on the effects of malnutrition: How a child’s body responds to hunger

This is why we appeal to children’s rights advocates to define as precisely as possible what is needed to meet the basic nutritional requirements of children at different stages of their development, what foods this requires at a minimum and what they cost.

Whatever the cause of 14% food inflation there is a price to be paid in life (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

However, because of what we know about the incapability of the state, and its inability to move swiftly at the moment, we can’t afford to wait for “legislative and other measures”. Hence the importance of what the Grow Great Campaign and DGMT are proposing. This is a golden opportunity of a social compact with real meaning for the poorest of the poor.

We hope that by the time South Africa marks Freedom Day again on 27 April a deal will have been struck between big food retailers and the government to free millions of children from avoidable hunger and malnutrition. It’s the right thing to do.

This article was written by Mark Heywood and was first published on The Daily Maverick on 4 April 2023.