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‘Mama, is there a piece of bread?’ – the desperate cry of SA’s hungry children

New Black Sash research finds widespread child hunger begins before birth

A new Black Sash research report on child hunger has found that mothers are going without food to shield children from starvation. Stock photo.
A new Black Sash research report on child hunger has found that mothers are going without food to shield children from starvation. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Riccardo Lennart Niels Mayer

Renewed efforts to ensure food security throughout the life cycle of a child — beginning with maternity protection for pregnant and breastfeeding women — are needed to stem the challenges of child hunger.

A new research report by the Black Sash released on Thursday makes this recommendation in relation to the findings.

The report found the child social grant (CSG) is insufficient to support a single mother and child, child malnutrition rates are high and caregivers understand the need for nutrient-dense food, but are unable to afford it and are forced into choices that violate their fundamental rights, such as deciding whether to feed their child or educate them.

The report, titled “Children, Social Assistance and Food Security”, lays out a heartbreaking narrative on how the country’s poorest children are starving and how mothers are going without food to shield children from hunger.

The research team, led by researchers Dr Chantell Witten of the University of the Free State and Dr Wanga Zembe of the SA Medical Research Council, said chronic malnutrition has been a long-standing public health challenge. More than 12-million children benefit from the R460 CSG, which is below the food poverty line (set at R744,96 per person per month), and a quarter of the country’s children are stunted.

Preventing high rates of malnutrition starts with good nutrition and health in pregnant women. However, stress about food was detrimental to both mother and the unborn baby, with stress hormones linked directly to poor birth outcomes.

The CSG, identified as the most effective poverty alleviating strategy, was found to be insufficient to sustain a child for a month. Food such as pilchards, fruit and dried beans were unaffordable and children usually only receive milk and fruit at school.

Most caregivers’ grocery lists were enough to last three weeks, mostly providing only two meals a day as “there is not enough food for everyone all of the time”.

For the last week caregivers are forced into survival strategies that include borrowing money from lenders, buying food by the teaspoon at an average of R2 or R3 for milk powder and sugar, relying on starch-based diets with little diversity and adults foregoing food.

“There are levels of starvation in some families despite the CSG, but children are generally protected.”

Some research participants revealed how women, in particular, are vulnerable to exploitation, with some mothers admitting to engaging in sex work within their local community to provide food for their children.

“He asks me ‘mama, is there a piece of bread?’ Do you understand? That hurts me a lot,” one of the participants stated.

The researchers found remarkable stories about how communities had stepped in to take control of situations where caregivers had lost their social security cards to mashonisas, or money lenders, who would take their entire grant payout every month to cover interest-generating debt that could never be paid off.

Communities would take back the cards, manage the debt and take over the grocery buying in a way that would ensure the family at least one meal a day and no accumulating debt.

Household health was identified as another challenge, with adults falling ill with HIV and TB leading to older children having to care for younger siblings or children being placed in orphanages. This was manifesting in mental difficulties in children and resulting in bed-wetting or deep fears of sickness and death.

Mothers spoke about children taking on parental roles and experiencing huge anxiety. One described how a young boy would watch his mother when she slept.

The report’s recommendations include linking the CSG to “an objective measure of need”, such as the food poverty line, and that CSG recipients be linked to other free basic services, such as schooling, school transport, electricity, housing and healthcare.

Another recommendation was the provision of a subsidised food basket for families.



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