What the Covid-19 revealed about hunger

Children line up for food at a school near Cape Town, South Africa in 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown. File photo: Reuters


Children line up for food at a school near Cape Town, South Africa in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown. File photo: Reuters

In South Africa, many people find it difficult to access sufficient amounts of healthy food. Because their diet is high in processed foods, refined starch, sugar and fat, they face a double burden of malnutrition and obesity, or what is known as “hidden hunger”. It is hidden because it does not fit the stereotypical image of hunger created by media coverage of famines. But it’s everywhere.

To be clear, the problem is not a shortage of food. In South Africa, hunger is the result of lack of access. Getting enough calories and adequate nutrients is largely linked to income. Beyond the high cost of healthy food, the hidden hunger in the country reflects the limited availability of nutritious products in low-income areas, the cost of energy for cooking, food storage and lack of access. to land for household food production.

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The Covid-19 pandemic and the strict measures imposed to contain its spread brought the hidden hunger out of hiding, as many people who had been able to afford just enough food to survive suddenly found themselves without. According to a study, 47% of households in South Africa ran out of money to buy food during the early stages of the initial foreclosure in April 2020. Job losses, crackdown on informal vendors and price increases caused by disruptions to global food and agricultural supply chains have all contributed to a sharp increase in food insecurity. Images of long queues for emergency food aid have publicized the problem. The increase in hunger levels among children in particular was concerning, but not surprisingly, given the abrupt closure of schools and school-based nutrition programs.

The pandemic has also made the consequences of hidden hunger more apparent. Because adequate nutrition is necessary for a healthy immune system, people with food insecurity are more likely to get sick. Additionally, there is a correlation between the severity of Covid-19 and diabetes, a disease associated with poor diet. Data from Cape Town suggests that patients with Covid-19 diabetes were nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized, and more than three times more likely to die from the pandemic, than patients without diabetes.

But while Covid-19 has increased food insecurity and highlighted the consequences of hunger, it has also produced potential solutions to increase access to healthy and affordable food. In the face of disruptions in global supply chains, more localized food systems began to emerge. When the government failed to implement adequate measures to offset the economic impact of blockages or the closure of school nutrition programs, civil society groups sought to fill the void. Across South Africa, community action networks have sprung up to fight hunger, with volunteers providing meals and other assistance to other members of the community.

Around Johannesburg, for example, the C19 People’s Coalition sought to connect small farmers, who have lost access to their home markets, with communities in need of food assistance. Unlike most government food packages, which were purchased from large corporations and contained non-perishable items with almost no nutritional value, these vegetable packages sought to support the livelihoods of small farmers while promoting health. vulnerable households.

And yet, the state has an important responsibility in the fight against hidden hunger, especially in South Africa, where the right to food is enshrined in the constitution. And examples from around the world demonstrate what is possible when a committed government works with civil society to tackle food insecurity.

In Belo Horizonte, a city in Brazil, dubbed “the city that ended hunger,” some of the notable programs include “popular restaurants” that serve thousands of healthy subsidized meals every day, subsidized fruit and vegetable shops. , a food bank that collects waste food and distributes prepared meals to social organizations, and farm stalls to directly connect small producers to urban consumers. These and other programs support the livelihoods of farmers and the health of consumers, while providing economic benefits and strengthening communities.

The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit says it will bring together different stakeholders to create more sustainable and equitable food systems, but grassroots movements, academics and civil society groups have criticized the summit for bypassing the United Nations Committee on World Food Security to create a new forum tarnished by undue corporate influence, lack of transparency and irresponsible decision-making. These groups have called for a boycott and are organizing a global counter-mobilization.

The big corporations poised to dominate the UN summit – seed companies, agrochemical producers, food processors and retailers – don’t have real solutions to hunger. Treating food as a commodity to be sold for profit, rather than a basic human right, is precisely what led to the hidden hunger crisis. Surprisingly, South Africa’s largest supermarket chains managed to generate profits in 2020, even as half of the country’s households could not afford to eat. Retailers bragged about their food donations while paying their workers – who have been designated “essential” – some of the lowest wages in the country.

The real solutions to the hidden hunger crisis must come from those most affected: small farmers producing healthy food for their communities and low-income consumers struggling to access adequate food. These voices were sidelined from the United Nations summit, but the solidarity initiatives they created during the pandemic represent the surest foundation on which to build a fairer and more resilient food system.

Brittany Kesselman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Society, Work, and Politics Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Copyright: Project Syndicat, 2021


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