Subsidising these 10 essential products could help stave off malnutrition in SA, say civil society groups

With millions of children not getting enough nutrition, the DG Murray Trust’s Grow Great project has intensified its call for the government and food industry to waive mark-ups on 10 essential food items.

Rising food prices are causing chronic malnutrition affecting one-quarter of South Africa’s children, and civil society organisations believe the exacerbated food insecurity could tip the country into a nutritional and social crisis in the next year.

The DG Murray Trust and its Grow Great campaign, which collaborates with civil society organisations and the government, has proposed that manufacturers and retailers agree to waive the mark-ups under one product label of 10 highly nutritious basic foods, which they call “10 best buys”.

The mark-ups could be either waived from the private product labels of retailers or a common product label under a non-profit brand of the national zero-stunting campaign.

Organisations such as the iThemba project, Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Project, with the Nelson Mandela Children Fund, met to discuss the proposals in the Food Security Campaign in late September.

“We propose an industry-led and government-supported initiative to ensure the availability of 10 highly nutritious basic foods,” the DG Murray Trust said.

In addition to calling on manufacturers and retailers to waive their mark-ups, the trust has suggested the government agree to provide a rebate or subsidy to retailers and manufacturers, essentially doubling the discount for consumers. It also recommends civil society publicise the 10 best buys to promote affordable nutritious foods.

David Harrison, CEO at DG Murray Trust, said the proposed foods included high-protein dry foods and Amasi as well as eggs, which contain important amino acids and minerals for brain development.

“Dry foods also have more predictable prices and are not subject to as much seasonal variation as fresh foods,” Harrison said.

The table above shows the products that would be part of the ‘10 best buys list’, the quantity and the price of the goods in total.

“While the potential discounts on these foods still need to be discussed with industry, the combined mark-up contributed by manufacturers and retailers is likely to be in the order of 10–15%; the likely cost to the food industry will be between R1.2-billion and R1.8-billion, which would need to be matched by government. This equates to about 0.7% of spending by social grant recipients in the retail sector in South Africa,” Harrison said.

“If the entire child support grant of R500 were spent on the discounted basket of foods (assuming a 30% discount), it would just about provide the minimum daily nutritional requirement and government could be deemed to have almost met that part of its constitutional obligation, Section 28(1)(c), in ensuring that every child has the right to basic nutrition.”

Chief programmes officer at the Nelson Mandela Children Fund, Stanley Maphosa, said the waiver of the mark-up on the 10 best buys would be possible with commitment from all stakeholders.

“With government, farming community and private sector commitment, it is feasible. Section 28 of the Constitution makes the well-being of children an obligation. We believe that with the government driving political will and mobilising all players as it has done for other initiatives, this is feasible,” said Maphosa.

The Nelson Mandela Children Fund has launched multiple initiatives over the years to help with food security, including the nutrition programme Isondlo, which was launched with Tiger Brands; food gardens; and food parcels targeting pregnant women, lactating mothers and children.

“The message of waiving food prices is critical to the fund and many civil society organisations. The collaboration that is there is to create awareness and advocate for the government to do its part and for the private sector to respond favourably for the sake of the children.

“Civil society is doing the best it can under the prevailing circumstances, and the collaboration is also [working] to avoid duplication and double dipping of services while ensuring that all children are reached. As civil society we always hold government accountable for the policies that should address the well-being of children, in this case malnutrition and hunger,” Maphosa said.

The DG Murray Trust points out that the economic and social implications of hunger and malnutrition far outweigh the potential cost to the food industry if they agree to a waiver of 10%–15%. But why should the industry play ball?

“Both social stability and [the] economy depend on adequate food for its people. Without active industry participation, food subsidisation by the government won’t go far enough to fill the gap and will probably be along the food value chain,” Harrison said.

Responding to queries, Shoprite-Checkers said that it was open to the idea as the supermarket giant already engaged the government for certain waivers and subsidies.

“The group has appealed to the government to waive the Road Accident Fund levy of 10% on diesel used for generators. Last year it spent R1.3-billion on diesel to power generators amid rolling blackouts in South Africa,” it said.

“Sharing the concerns raised herein, the group has also asked the government to consider zero VAT on certain key commodities to further prioritise relief for the people of South Africa.”

Daily Maverick contacted several other supermarket chains, but they have yet to respond.

The DG Murray Trust said the Presidency had expressed support for the proposal and it was included in the Accelerated Poverty Alleviation Plan, convened by the Presidency. Dr Roseline September, chief director in the Department of Social Development, who is working in the Presidency on this issue, said the Presidency was still “taking internal inputs”.

The trust said: “With the agreement of the Competition Commission, the proposal has been fully discussed within the structures of the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, which is currently compiling a discussion paper from the responses solicited from its members.”

Maphosa said the request was to not only waive food prices but also to sell at cost protein-intensive foods that counter stunting.

“In other words, retailers would not make a profit on a basket of certain foods.”

According to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Project’s latest Household Affordability Index, the average monthly cost to feed a child a basic nutritious diet increased from R828.64 in September 2022 to R907.43 in September 2023. The child support grant is R500.

The project’s Mervyn Abrahams said people sacrificed nutritional food to pay off bills and transport to get to work. This had left grant recipients and people with low income with even less nutrition on their plates resulting in stunting in children and other devastating impacts on health.

Abrahams, who is deeply involved with small-scale farming initiatives and other initiatives toward food security, said: “The issue of food insecurity comes down to how much money you have in your pocket and what you can get with it.”

This article was written by Naledi Sikhakhane and was first published on the Daily Maverick website on 9 October 2023.