Ina Opperman
Business Journalist
5 minute read
1 Jun 2022
3:31 pm

Low-income South Africans forced to go hungry as food prices explode

Ina Opperman

The bad news is that prices are expected to increase, and with higher food insecurity comes higher risk of social instability.

Image: iStock

Food prices are exploding and low-income consumers are being forced to go hungry, according to the May 2022 Household Affordability Index.

The prices of cooking oil, potatoes, onion, chicken livers, beef offal, carrots, and spinach have increased the most, but maize meal, cake flour, frozen chicken portions, stock cubes, wors, tomatoes, cabbage and white bread also cost a lot more now.

The Household Food Basket in the Index was designed by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group (PMBEJD), with women living on low incomes in Johannesburg (Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa and Hillbrow), Cape Town (Gugulethu, Philippi, Khayelitsha, Langa, Delft, Dunoon), Durban (KwaMashu, Umlazi, Isipingo, Durban CBD and Mtubatuba), Springbok (in the Northern Cape) and Pietermaritzburg.

The basket includes the foods and volumes of food women living in a family of seven members (an average low-income household size) typically try and secure each month from 44 supermarkets and 30 butcheries.

In May the average cost of the basket was R4 609,89, an increase of R66,96 (1,5%) from the R4 542,93 it cost in April and R472,78 (11,4%), more than in May last year when the basket cost R4 137,11. The prices of the food baskets increased in all the areas, except Springbok.

Compared to May last year, the basket increased by:

  • Johannesburg: R440,88 (10,5%)
  • Durban: R563,53 (13,6%)
  • Cape Town: R400,63 (9,9%)
  • Springbok: R372,39 (8,2%)
  • Pietermaritzburg: R509,10 (12,9%).

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Food price increases

Over the past month, 28 of the 44 foods in the basket increased in price. The significant increases were:

  • cooking oil (5L) that increased by an average of R24,67 (14%) compared to April, and a whopping 52% more than in May 2021
  • potatoes (10 kg) that increased by an average of R7,95 (11%) compared to April and 22% more than in May 2021
  • onions (10 kg) that increased by R7,56 (10%) compared to April and 13%, more than in May 2021
  • chicken livers (2 kg) that increased by R4,26 (7%) compared to April and 32% more than in May 2021
  • beef offal (2 kg) that increased by F4,22 (5%) compared to April and 17% more than in May 2021
  • carrots (5 kg) that increased by R5,33 (15%) compared to April and 8% more than in May 2021
  • spinach (9 bunches) that increased by R9,80 (9%) compared to April and 25% more than in May 2021.

Other noticeable Increases were for 20 kg of maize meal (4% more than a year ago), 10 kg of cake flour (13% more), 10 kg of frozen chicken portions (16% more), 48 stock cubes (2% more), 2 kg of wors (11% more), 2 heads of cabbage (7% more) and 25 loaves of white bread (10% more).

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Reasons for higher food prices

The bad news is that these increases will continue as all the factors, such as much higher commodity prices, as well as production and logistical costs, continue to drive food prices upwards. It is also not only the price of food that is concerning, but also the availability of food.

The PMBEJD says long supply lines cause vulnerability to food insecurity at global and local levels.

Covid-19 and the Russia/Ukraine war, as well as local climate disasters such as the recent flooding in KwaZulu Natal, social unrest in July 2021, and general daily protests disrupting logistics and production, suggest that we need to seriously re-think our levels of exposure to global commodity price movements and speculation and long food supply chains negatively affecting household food security.

“Our over-exposure to global supply lines suggest that we need to build national capacity and reserves as an immediate and long-term mitigation strategy, including to invest more in local agricultural input capacity and small-scale farmers who produce food closer to the table where it is consumed. Ensuring household food security is a primary function of government.”

ALSO READ: Ukraine crisis means food prices will see more spikes, not only in SA, but across Africa

Household food security and societal stability

The PMBEJD warns that there is a direct correlation between household food security and societal stability, and with increasing household food insecurity, the risk of social instability has increased significantly.

The recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal for the second time in a matter of weeks forced another spike in food prices for Pietermaritzburg (R128,13 more) and Durban (R126,54 more). The PMBEJD says heavy rains and flooding have an effect on agricultural production and produce, but the immediate impact was on transporting goods on roads.

“The flooding caused severe infrastructure damage to a sizeable portion of KwaZulu-Natal’s transportation systems. We have seen examples over the past 18 months of why a functioning railway system offers food safeguards and security and now with the floods. Effective and efficient railways are a buffer against climate disaster and social unrest.”

However, with the soaring diesel price, railways also offer more efficient, reliable and cheaper modes of transportation, the PMBEJD says. “South Africa’s long value chains, with food that is now grown very far and have to be transported over very long distances to reach our tables are under severe stress.”

ALSO READ: Let’s hush about children dying from hunger

Too little money for low-income consumers

The National Minimum Wage of R23,19 an hour and R185,52 for an 8-hour day, continues to deepen poverty in workers’ homes while the Child Support Grant of R480 is 23% below the Food Poverty Line of R624, and 40% below the average cost to feed a child a basic nutritious diet of R803,46.

“The reality is, that on R480, a mother has no chance to feed her child properly. The state has enough money to draw on so that all children can eat. No child needs to go hungry. No child needs to be malnourished. No child needs to be stunted. No child needs to die.”

Even people who are not considered to be low-income consumers are now starting to notice price increases, but it is still easy for them to think that an increase of about R24 for cooking oil is not that much.

However, it is what you can buy with that R24, such as another loaf of bread, that matters.