Ina Opperman
Business Journalist
5 minute read
1 Feb 2021
3:40 pm

Food price increases starving the poor

Ina Opperman

The higher prices of core staple foods mean that poor people have less money to buy other important, nutritious food.

Picture: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic has made poor people even poorer and looking at the price increases on the basket of food that poor people survive on, it is clear that there is a long and hard road ahead as the special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant of R350 also came to an end on Sunday.

If you are poor, the price of your food basket increased by 15.3% over the past year, costing R4051,20 on average. The price increased by R48,78 (1.2%) between December 2020 and January 2021), while it increased by R194,86 (5.1%) since September 2020.

The latest prices of the items in the basic food basket are measured by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group. The basket contains 43 basic items that poor people usually buy. The prices of the goods in the basket were only monitored in Pietermaritzburg until August last year.

Compiling the basket

The Household Food Basket in the Household Affordability Index has been designed with the help of women who live on low incomes and includes the foods and volumes women living in a family of seven members (an average low-income household size) say they typically try to secure each month, given affordability constraints. The basket is not nutritionally complete.

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Since September last year, the organisation has been tracking food price data from 44 supermarkets and 30 butcheries in Johannesburg (Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa and Hillbrow), Durban (KwaMashu, Umlazi, Isipingo, Durban CBD and Mtubatuba), Cape Town (Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Philippi, Delft and Dunoon), Pietermaritzburg and Springbok in the Northern Cape.

Latest prices

The latest price for the basket was:

  • Springbok R4203,90
  • Durban R4117,13
  • Johannesburg R4042,49
  • Cape Town R3957,19.

Core foods driving increases

Unfortunately, the prices show that the main foods driving the higher increases in the food basket over the past five months are still the core foods most South African households reasonably expect to have in their homes and required for all basic food preparation to avoid hunger, with a 15% increase in maize meal, 3% for rice and cake flour, 5% for white sugar, 33% for sugar beans, 7% for samp, 4% for cooking oil and potatoes, 2% for onions and 4% for bread.

According to the report on the latest prices, high levels of inflation on these foods are concerning because people must buy these core foods regardless of price increases.

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Adverse effect of higher prices

The higher prices of core staple foods mean that poor people have less money to buy other important, nutritious food, such as eggs, dairy, meat and fish, which are essential for protein, calcium, and iron.

Vegetables and fruit that are essential for vitamins, minerals and fibre are also left on the shop shelves, which means that overall household health and well-being, as well as resistance to illness, is impacted.

Food becoming unaffordable to the poor

The report points out that the higher rand-value cost of a basket of food has become unaffordable, breaching the level of the National Minimum Wage, which is currently R3321,60. This means that a large majority of families are struggling to afford enough nutritious sufficient food.

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Loss of government support

Add to this the loss of financial support from government to support families during the initial stages of the pandemic that was withdrawn in October 2020, after just six months, and the end of the R350 Covid relief grant, and it is clear that poor people find themselves in an even more dire situation.

“Government has chosen to withdraw support in the middle of a pandemic, when almost nothing has gone back to normal and almost everything has got worse. The vast majority of South Africans now face the second, and possibly third and fourth waves of Covid-19, with less money in their pockets than at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

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Women speak up

“With no or little savings, almost no capacity to absorb shocks after we have lost our jobs, our wages has been cut and fewer working hours, food, electricity and transport prices continue to climb. People we love are dying.

“How is it possible that we allowed government to stop providing relief and not intervene to reduce the cost of expenses by regulating and bringing down the prices of core staple foods, subsidise public transport and to cut the cost of electricity? It seems trite to ask if government is doing its best to support us during one of the worst periods of our lives,” the group reported.

Recognising that the pandemic will be around for at least another year and that they are on their own now, these women will find a way to survive. “What can we do? We hustle. We eat less so our children can eat, we find someone, anyone to borrow money from and then find a way not to repay them. Everybody is hustling to sell something, make something, grow something, beg and borrow, … start something, anything to survive. There is no rest, there is no peace,” they say.

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Stokvel helped, but not anymore

From recent conversations with women, the group heard that there was a small window of grace because women, who were able to keep up with stokvel payments, were in a much better position to provide for their families, as most stokvels survived 2020.

However, there is also a dark side to keeping up stokvel payments, because these women were only able to carry on payments by sacrificing their own health and nutrition needs and using some of the social grant top-ups on child support and old-age grants.

The food bought with stokvel payouts in December were an absolute life saver and usually lasts until March or April in a normal year, but this is not a normal year. The food will not last that long because families share their food with those whose food has run out.

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