Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Food prices for low-income consumers stable, but still too high

Low-income consumers are still battling to put food on the table although food prices did not increase much in March.

Food prices for low-income consumers were stable in March, although nutritious food is still far too expensive for them. This means that low-income households have to cut nutritious food from their food baskets to be able to pay for electricity and transport as well.

According to the Household Food Basket survey conducted by women in low-income communities in Johannesburg (Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa and Hillbrow), Durban (KwaMashu, Umlazi, Isipingo, Durban CBD, Hammarsdale and Pinetown), Cape Town (Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Philippi, Langa, Delft and Dunoon), Pietermaritzburg, Mtubatuba (in Northern KwaZulu-Natal) and Springbok (in the Northern Cape, the average cost of the food basket was R5 277.93 in March.

The prices form part of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Groups’ Household Affordability Index that tracks the prices of 44 basic foods from 47 supermarkets and 32 butcheries.

The average cost of the Household Food Basket increased by R0.63 in March from R5 277.30 in February 2024 and also increased by R311.72 (6.3%), from R4 966.20 in March 2023.

ALSO READ: Household food basket price decreases, but still too high

Price increases and decreases

In March, the prices of 28 food items increased, while the prices of 16 food items decreased. Prices that increased by 5% or more include curry powder (6%), chicken feet (6%), inyama yangaphakathi [beef tripe] (6%), fish (8%), tomatoes (12%) and cabbage (12%).

Food items that cost 2% or more include rice (3%), sugar beans (4%), samp (2%), stock cubes (3%), tea (3%), chicken gizzards (3%), chicken livers (2%), green pepper (2%), Cremora (3%), canned beans (2%), peanut butter (3%) and brown bread (3%).

The prices of some food items also declined, such as carrots (-7%) butternut (-20%), apples (- 6%), oranges (-22%), potatoes (-4%), beef liver (-2%), spinach (-4%) and white bread (-2%).

The Household Food Basket cost slightly more in Johannesburg and Cape Town and significantly more in Springbok, while it cost marginally less in Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Mtubatuba.

The Johannesburg basket increased by R29.76 compared to February and by R367.07 compared to March 2023. The Cape Town basket increased by R47.55 compared to February and by R230.83 compared to March 2023, while the Springbok basket increased by R288.84 compared to February and by R432.71 compared to March 2023.

The Durban basket decreased by R18.83 compared to February and increased by R372.71 (7.7%) compared to March 2023. The Pietermaritzburg basket decreased by R1.91 compared to February and increased by R229.78 compared to March 2023, while the Mtubatuba basket decreased by R12.34 compared to February and increased by R225.50 in March 2023.

ALSO READ: Low-income consumers still paying more for food – household food basket

Food prices in household food basket compared to the National Minimum Wage

In March, the National Minimum Wage (NMW) was R27.58 an hour and R220.64 for an 8-hour day. With 19 working days in March, the maximum National Minimum Wage for a general worker was R4 192.16. Black South African workers usually depend on one wage to support 3.8 people and dispersed in a worker’s family of four, the wage is reduced to R1 048.04 per person, far below the upper-bound poverty line of R1 558 per person per month.

In March, the basic nutritional food basket for a family of four persons cost R3 694.62. Using Pietermaritzburg-based figures for electricity and transport and the average figure for a minimum nutritional basket of food for a family of four, the Group calculates that electricity and transport took up 57.9% of a worker’s wage (R2 426.92/R4 192.16).

They only buy food after paying for transport and electricity, which left only R1 765.24 for food and everything else. Therefore, the Group calculates that in March workers’ families underspent on food by a minimum of 52.2% (having R1 765.24 left after transport and electricity and with nutritious food costing R3 694.62).

Therefore, the Group says there is no possibility of a worker being able to afford enough nutritious food for her family. Even if the entire R1 765.24 all went to buy food, it means only R441.31 is available per person per month, again far below the food poverty line of R760.

ALSO READ: National minimum wage: Can you survive on less than R5k per month?

Increased National Minimum Wage still not enough

The Group says the new National Minimum Wage of R27.58 per hour, which took effect on 1 March,, means a daily rate of R220.64 and an average of R4 633.44 per month for an average of 21 days worked.

Although this is an increase of 8.5% or R2.16 per hour, the Group says it is unlikely to cover inflation on workers’ expenses this year.

“Our forecast this year is that workers’ expenses are likely to increase by 9.8%, which means there should have been an increase of 13.7%, as worker expenses are likely to increase by R586.02 per month, while the new wage only offers an extra R362.88 per month.

“It means that again workers will face a deficit in their wages just in terms of absorbing inflation. Moreover, the 8.5% increase does nothing to close the gap between the low wage (at an average of R4 633.44 for a full working-day month) and the actual monthly cost of the three core worker expenses of transport, electricity and food for a family of four (R6 572.66).”

The Group says annual adjustments on the NMW require an inflationary-linked increase plus an additional increase to move the NMW closer to the real cost of worker expenses.

“Because this is not happening, the NMW runs the risk of going the same way as the Old Age Grant, Child Support Grant and Special Relief of Distress Grant: a wage with no connection to reality, no connection to its purpose and with annual increases becoming increasingly abstract and meaningless.”

This leads to substantial risks for the health and wellbeing of these families, as well as increased indebtedness, social dissent and economic depression.

It is estimated that 3.8 million workers are paid at the level of the NMW, of whom nearly 500 000 workers are part-time. NMW workers make up more than a fifth of the country’s employed workforce.

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