Food Insecurity and Inequality

Many people have misconceptions about South Africa, thinking it is a developed country without many of the problems the rest of Africa faces-poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food insecurity, corruption, etc….and in some parts of that country, that’s more or less true. You can go to highly developed areas of the country and find every modern convenience, mistaking it for some city in America.

But the reality is that South Africa is plagued by inequality and poverty, leading to widespread food insecurity. It’s estimated that at least 12 million South Africans go to bed hungry each night. In the rural areas, where I’m living, this is pretty evident just looking at the children. Many children show signs of long term malnutrition, through stunting or kwashiorkor. Others show signs of emaciation, indicating short-term or seasonal malnutrition. This affects their development, and impacts their success in school and beyond.

Malnutrition is a problem in South Africa, but it’s often hidden by the modern advances of the First World.

There are a lot of things going on in South Africa that affect food security, and race happens to be one of the factors. During Apartheid, black people were removed from some of the most fertile land in South Africa, freeing it up for white farmers. They were removed to some of the harshest, least productive areas of the country. At the end of Apartheid, much of that farmland was retained by the white farmers. Now, twenty years later, vast inequalities in land ownership exist. 36,000 large-scale farmers control 86 million hectares of land, while 1.4 million black farmers have access to 14 million hectares. (iol.co.za)

Stop and look at that sentence again, and really think about what it means. Out of 100 million hectares of farmland in South Africa, 2.5% of the population of farmers (non-black) control 86% of the land. And 97.5% of the population of farmers (who identify as black) control only 14% of the land.

Imagine how that impacts food insecurity, and which ethnicity is most impacted. Yes, there are white households that are food insecure. But the vast majority of families who face insecurity are either rural black South Africans, or township (think urban slums) black South Africans.

I work in a rural village trying to improve food security through small-scale, intensive food gardening, working with potential young black agriculturists. Many of the children in my village are considered orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and come from food insecure households. Even if their family has frequent access to food, it might be only during certain times of the month/year (i.e. near payday), it might not be enough food, or it might be food that lacks proper nutrients (i.e. pap, or maize porridge). My goal during my third year is to work with both adults and children to teach sustainable home gardening methods that are high-yielding, low-technology, and which use water responsibly. The idea is that if a family knows more efficient ways of growing food, they can contribute to their own household food security by growing healthy vegetables.

Food insecurity has the potential to cripple this nation, and the problem gets worse as food prices rise. Pensioners in SA receive 1,500 rand/month from the government (about 150USD). For each child in the rural areas (for needy families), the parents receive R250 (about $25) to care for the child. Can you imagine raising a child on $25/month?

Many of the kids at my workplace are one of several, and some belong to households of 8-9 people who rely on 1 or 2 child grants and perhaps a pension from the grandparent. This means that many children either go hungry, or only eat pap. Pap fills the stomach but provides little in terms of nutrition.

But this is why I’m here…in hopes that I can many some small change to increase food security.
-Jen

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Surrounded by Hunger, Part 1

Since I arrived in my village almost two years ago, teachers have told me that many children at my school go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and often have only one meal a day-the meager meal provided by the school nutrition programme. Looking around, I believed that was true for some of the learners, but I couldn’t imagine that most of them didn’t have food at home. Maybe I was in denial-I didn’t want to believe it.

The fact is that I am surrounded by hunger.

No, children aren’t wasting away before my eyes from acute malnutrition. Instead, from birth they are set on a trajectory of chronic malnutrition, evidenced by low weight-for-height (underweight), or low height-for-age (stunting). Their unfocused eyes in the first hours of school, heads dropping towards their desks, and slow, shuffled movements prior to the school serving the lunch at 10am tell me that most do not have breakfast. These kids are hungry.

And some are dying.

In fact, 1 in 15 children die before they reach 5 years of age in South Africa. One third of those children die when they are severely malnourished, and 60% are underweight.

Their death certificates don’t state that they died from malnutrition. No, instead they die from things children should be able to overcome. A 14 year old in a friend’s village died a few weeks ago from a dog bite. Not rabies, just an infection from a dog bite. In a nearby village, a two year old passed away last year from an unspecified illness. A friend of mine told me about a horrible incident at her school, where a first grader accidentally killed a fellow first grader by hitting her in the head with a rock. A last weekend, there was a funeral in my village for a learner from one of my schools. He was “sick for a long time”, which translates into “he had HIV”.

Kids shouldn’t be dying from dog bites, bumps to the head, or preventable and treatable illnesses. This happens when kids are chronically malnourished, suffering from protein-energy deficiency. 2.7 million children in South Africa live in homes where there is child hunger. Overall, 12 million South Africans are considered food insecure, and 4 million of those are on the brink of starvation. These are just a few of the stories….but it’s happening every day.

Earlier this week, I recorded the height and weights of all of our Grade R, or kindergarten, learners. We are in the process of identifying who our Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) are, in order to support them through the school gardens. Finding out the orphans is relatively easy, because the social workers keep track of them and provide a stipend for families who take in an orphan. But the vulnerable children often fall through the cracks. It is up to the school to identify them, and without a standard, it is difficult. I can look at the kids who come to school barefoot, or without coats in the winter, or who wear the same uniform day after day, and I know they are vulnerable. But almost every child in my school is painfully thin-how do I determine who is going hungry? I can’t ask them; they won’t say. So I worked with the principal and decided that we would record their heights and weights and compare them to international standards to determine which children are stunted and which children are underweight.

Out of 39 learners, 18 fall below the 5th percentile in either height or weight. If a learner is at the 5th percentile, it means that 95 percent of children their age in the world are taller or heavier than they are. Nearly half of the class is stunted or underweight. 28 of the learners have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below the 5th percentile. Body Mass Index is a calculation that uses weight and height to determine the amount of fat a person has. Only 1 child has a BMI at the 50th percentile, the rest were below, mostly far below. The 50th BMI percentile mark for a 5 year old girl is 15.1 and for a boy is 15.5.

One of the learners only weighed 11.5kg, or 25.3lb, which is considered underweight for a two year old, and she is 5.

How do we fix this? How do we feed these children? How do we improve this situation?

Stunting has lifelong impacts on a child, even if they receive better nutrition later on in childhood. They rarely catch up with their well-nourished peers. Stunted women often give birth to children with low birth weight, and the cycle begins again. When children have HIV, TB, malaria, or other opportunistic infections, they often do not have the ability to fight the disease, leading to death when it could have been averted. Hidden hunger and parasitic infections exacerbate all of this.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report in 2012, South Africa ranked 107 out of 144 in the world for infant mortality deaths, and 133 out of 144 for life expectancy. In a country that is the economic leader in Africa, a relatively stable economy, and rich in resources, this is a tragedy. In 2011, the GINI coefficient labeled South Africa as the most unequal nation in the world, surpassing Brazil. In a country where wealthy children receive a world class private education and feast on well-rounded, nutrition meals three times a day, rural children are slowly fading away, with empty bellies and immune systems that are unable to cope with the onslaught of physical, psychological, and social maladies. A child raised in poverty in South Africa is four times more likely to die before reaching their fifth birthday than a child raised in a wealthy family.

It is estimated that 30% of children in South Africa are stunted, and 12 million of 52 million people in the country regularly go to bed hungry. In Limpopo, 48% of children were considered stunted in 2005. In 2004, over 800 children died from kwashiorkor, which is an acute form of protein-energy deficiency. Kwashiorkor is commonly seen in places such as war zones, famine relief programmes, and refugee camps. There is no reason it should be seen in a country that has enough food to feed everyone. Kwashiorkor often causes children to have bloated, distended stomachs, and their hair will begin to turn reddish, orange, or gold in severe cases. It is obvious to me that some of the learners I interact with on a daily basis are suffering from kwashiorkor.

What can we do? We can give them seeds and teach them to plant. We can put the power in their hands and help them to ensure their homes are food secure. But I live in the desert. Is it enough?

I’ll write more about ways the government in trying to intervene, and ways in which they should intervene. This country is in a crisis. Food insecurity is a far-reaching problem, which has direct impacts on health and education, and is extremely difficult to overcome. But we must have hope that something can be done.

Otherwise, I’m looking at children who are doomed to be sick and hungry for the rest of their lives, who will raise hungry children, and who will ultimately die prematurely. I am very afraid that this could very well be the reality, unless something changes.
-Jen

http://www.westerncape.gov.za/eng/directories/services/11512/6451
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC201028/
http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/01/30/twelve-million-going-to-bed-hungry-in-sa

Hunger in South Africa

Over the weekend, I posted two posts about food security, hunger, and climate change in the North West Province. This week, I am going to be writing about hunger. The hunger I see on a daily basis, and its affect on South Africa. I’m kicking it off with some stats I found this week.

1 in 15 children die before their 5th birthday in South Africa, and SA is one of the few countries where this rate has RISEN since 1990.

15% of babies are born with a low birth weight, meaning they have a much greater risk for dying from infection or lack of feeding.

1/3 of childhood deaths are HIV/AIDS related, and another 1/3 are from infections like pneumonia and diarrhea.
Of all children who die, 1/3 are severely malnourished and 60% are underweight.

A child from a poor family is four times more likely to die than a child from a wealthy family.

2.7 million children (15%) live in households where there is child hunger.

1 in 10 children suffer from severe malnutrition.

12 million people suffer from food insecurity, and 4 million of those are on the brink of starvation.

1 in 5 children are stunted due to chronic malnutrition.

Does this scare you? It scares me. There kids aren’t halfway around the world….they are my neighbors. I teach them, play with them, and learn from them. Their smiles make my day, and their exuberant greetings make me laugh. Yet from birth, they fight hunger. They go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and try to learn while their stomachs rumble painfully.

It breaks my heart.
-Jen

Sources: http://www.feedthebabiesfund.org.za/News/FactsInfo/ChildPovertyandMalnutrition/tabid/108/Default.aspx
http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/01/30/twelve-million-going-to-bed-hungry-in-sa

Guest Post on the Realities of Life in the North West Province

As promised, here is the guest post written by my friend Sue.  She has spent most of her life in South Africa, and has spent much of her professional life traveling to the far corners of this country, teaching schools about permaculture.  She understands the importance of food security, and sustainable, small scale food production.  About a month ago, I received an email from her discussing the realities of life in rural villages in the North West province, where I’ve spent the last two years.  Her words resonated with me, and captured many things I was unable to communicate to friends, family, and whoever else reads my blog.  Sue agreed to write a post for my blog, and I hope you enjoy this post and take something away from it.  It’ll be discussing more about the issues she raises in the coming week, so keep tuned in. 
-Jen

“Greetings, readers of Jen’s blog!  I have been following it with great interest, too – I am enjoying reading about her experiences and seeing my country through her eyes.  I am an immigrant to South Africa, but have lived here longer than I lived in my motherland.  In some ways I feel I am still learning about this wonderful, rich and diverse country.  Today I share some of my learning with you.

South Africa is a dry country – a rainfall map shows that the coastal areas receive far more rain than the inland areas.  More than half of our population live in built up areas and the rest are at the mercy of poor service delivery (long interruptions in water provision) and an arid landscape.  I recently moved to one of our driest provinces – a huge shock to my system, having lived in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth for twenty years, and a challenge to my permaculture skills.

This province mimics the pattern of South Africa’s rainfall, too!  The parts of the province that border Gauteng and Limpopo are wetter and warmer; so much so that avocados, paw-paws and bananas will grow.  Much of the province, however, is not warmer; it is blisteringly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter (such as where Jen lives).  Spring and autumn are short and provide little relief from seasonal extremes.

What worries me most is the decrease in rainfall in the areas bordering the Kalahari Desert. Climate change is experienced with devastating force in these areas; where we have some of our projects and schools there hasn’t been a ‘planting rain’ for two years.  Planting rain means 50 mm over two days, so that there is a ‘wet’ depth of up to half a metre – which will enable seeds to germinate.  Planting main crops without this much rainfall is a waste of time and precious seeds. After that there has to be a little more rain to maintain growth, and fruiting and seeding – and this has not happened either. To put it into context, Johannesburg receives up to 700 mm per year on average.  The dry parts of this province can expect up to 500 mm of rain per year.  For the past two seasons the rainfall has been below 200 mm.

I have travelled the length and breadth of the province over the past few weeks – peak harvesting time for main crops – and have seen more fields of crop failure than I ever have seen before. The only really good harvests are those cultivated under irrigation.

I have seen very, very few home food gardens.

Climate change hits the most vulnerable people the hardest.  Living in the rural areas of South Africa is not the idyllic, easy lifestyle one might imagine.  It’s tough. And it’s a constant battle to stretch the few funds that float around; one out of twenty nine adults in our rural areas has a job.  Yes, read that again.  Education is at the foundation of this problem; many children quit school sometime during high school because the high school is too far away from home.  There are a few boarding schools but the conditions are appalling. Many schools are over-crowded and in these conditions it is a miracle that some children do succeed.

Add to this that one in five children is an orphan, and of these young ones, one in five lives in a child-headed home. There are not enough NGOs to go around to provide support. The more fortunate children receive help from the community and sometimes the challenge is just too much.  We had a school at one of our workshops the other day; of the 1800 children in the school 1200 are either orphans and/or vulnerable.  What do we do with this information? What can we do?

Think about it this way, if only one in almost thirty adults has a job, what are people living on? Usually social grants, and these may keep maize porridge on the table, but it doesn’t provide for much more than that.  For the vast majority of our children in this province the food that children receive as part of the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is the only thing standing between them and severe malnourishment.  These children are already under-nourished. And there are no food gardens at home (in most cases).

One of the tell-tale signs of under-nourishment is when children’s hair turns a shade of rust to orange.  When we visit schools I am shocked to see just how many of the little ones in front of me are in dire straits.  Another telling factor is stunted growth – almost all the children I see are small for their ages.

When we visited a school in Klerksdorp just after Valentine’s Day I heard how the school had used this event as a fund-raising opportunity – and cancelled the NSNP meal of the day.  Great – it’s forward thinking! The school prepared food to sell, and a great number of children in this area could not afford to buy food.  They went hungry.
Valentine’s Day was on a Friday. Many of the children went home to empty larders for the weekend and returned to school on Monday, weak with hunger.  For some reason, that day the NSNP meal did not materialise.  Some of the children drank water to curb their hunger pangs – so much so that they were vomiting water.

These children are living on a knife-edge.  One small change in the wrong direction can lead to devastating consequences. Living on the edge of the desert is not for sissies; that people are surviving at all is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. But I know there is only so much that we – people – can take.  There will come a time when the ravages of one too many harsh, dry summers will take their toll.  

So, climate change may be flavour of the month in boardrooms and a hot topic at the dinner tables around the cities, and around the world.  It might be really cool to be green, and to work hard at lowering our carbon footprints.  But, there’s more to it than that.Whilst I support such noble endeavours, I see a sea of faces in our rural areas.  I see homes without food gardens and I see children unable to learn because they are not eating, and if they are eating, it’s not enough of the right food.  And I see less and less rain.

We have to apply ways to maximise home and school food production – put the right food on the table every day.  We have to apply really good, smart ways to harvest the little bit of rainwater that there is. This will bring about the positive change to move people away from the edge.  In order to do that we have to plant trees to create micro-climates that makes it possible to turn desert margins into places of abundance. We need more people (like Jen) teaching people how to grow food in the drylands.

What I can tell you is that my heart is touched by the heart of the people of the North West. In all of these challenges there are good people doing good work, and I have met so many in this province. I see many people working hard to make things better, and to make the most of the few resources that are available.Many of the food gardens I have seen are there because someone took the time to teach others.

I am blessed to be here  –  I live among angels.  And together we will turn our semi-arid desert into an oasis of food!”

Hunger

Grade R learners-notice the hair of the 2 on the left.

Grade R learners-notice the hair of the 2 on the left.

Since arriving in my village, I’ve noticed how thin kids are. Since food is harder to get in my village than others, and since the unemployment rate is higher, almost every single child in my school is thin. Last year, there were 2 kids that would be described as pudgy, and that has more to do with them having poor-fitting uniforms than actually being fat. Few children appear to be at a healthy weight, and the vast majority are bony arms and legs. It’s hard to live in this reality. Adults are typically overweight, but kids are dreadfully skinny. This is due to a diet largely based on pap (cornmeal dish) and for the well-off family, chicken and maybe a veggie.

I had been told that most of the learners didn’t have enough food, and many went to bed hungry or didn’t have breakfast. Each child would get a meal at school, and unlike every other school I’ve visited, only a handful would bring other food with them. The meals are small and basic, just some carbs, veg/fruit, and a protein. At most schools, kids bring a “real” lunch with them, but not at mine. Mma N, my garden counterpart, had said several times that most learners don’t have food at home, and was adamant about giving food boxes from the garden to our OVCs. But I honestly assumed she and other educators were blowing things out of proportion. This is South Africa, kids can’t be starving, right?

Then I started looking and noticing. I saw how few kids brought food from home, how many didn’t buy snacks at school or participate in fundraisers. I noticed brittle, reddish-blond hair, a dead giveaway symptom of Kwashiorkor. I saw how sluggish and out of it kids were in the mornings, before lunch was served. Kids stole our garden veggies. I observed how slowly children developed, and how babies and toddlers didn’t walk or talk. I saw how small the kids really were, and it was heartbreaking.

Hidden hunger, or lack of micronutrients, is a dangerous form of hunger. People don’t necessarily die from it, but it has lifelong effects. Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that comes from not eating enough protein, even though you get enough calories. I had noticed how some kids had reddish or even gold-blonde hair, and found it intriguing. These are black kids, after all, so their hair shouldn’t be red or gold-blonde. I noticed that many kids in Grade R, 1, and 2 had this hair, but only a few older kids did. So when kids start coming to school in Grade R, they are served a complete protein 5 times a week, and it is helping them. The older kids look a little healthier, but the littlest ones are so small, so underdeveloped.

Kwashiorkor and malnutrition stunt children, meaning they do not grow as tall as they should. This typically is lifelong, which may help explain why some people here are so short. With Kwashiorkor, which I think is the prevalent form of malnutrition in my village, children lose muscle mass and do not develop as they should, mentally or physically. They hit milestones late and suffer in school because they are not prepared for the demands of the classroom. Some even get red or gold-blonde hair, which is very brittle. In the worst stages, they will lose their hair and sometimes skin, leaving oozing sores. If a child has Kwashiorkor, it is much more likely that they will suffer from (maybe even die from) another infection, like pneumonia, TB, malaria, or HIV/AIDS.

I’m setting out on a project to weigh and measure the heights of each child in my school. I’m looking for funding through the Department of Agriculture to help the school garden, and I hope this information helps. Since we use the garden to help feed the kids, hopefully they will be more willing to support us if they see the level of malnutrition and stunting. If not, at least I’ll know which kids need the food box the most. I know it will be hard to uncover the extent of the malnutrition in my village, but it needs to be done. Yes, this is South Africa, but people still suffer from malnutrition.
-Jen

Grade R having lunch. Notice the light hair.

Grade R having lunch. Notice the light hair.

Grade R making recycled art!

Grade R making recycled art!

World Food Day

Grade R singing a song about planting.

Grade R singing a song about planting.

October 16th is World Food Day, named to honor the foundation of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Food has become a very big issue for me, or rather hunger has. My school has about 2 chubby kids, the rest or skinny or emaciated. And by chubby, I mean they look well-fed and healthy, and would be called normal in the States. I often stand at Assembly, looking at muscle-less legs and knobby knee, hollow cheeks and stick-thin arms. The kids in my village are hungry. Even those from well-off families may be painfully thin, and most are obviously stunted in growth. Kids talk about their “gold” hair, which is nearly as light as mine-on a black child. This is a sign of severe malnutrition.

Living amidst chronic hunger and malnutrition is hard. I can’t relay how torn I feel when I see obviously hungry children in my village. And the reality is that South African kids are better off than most in Sub-Saharan Africa. Every child at my school receives free lunch, every day. The government mandates that it is served by 10am because many kids go without breakfast, and you can’t effectively teach hungry children. So every child gets one meal a day, which consists of a complete protein and sometimes a fruit of vegetable. But for some kids, that is the only meal they get. And on school holidays?

One of the worst moments I had at school was when a gogo brought a child in to the school. The teachers started yelling at him, then he started to cry. Then the teachers calmed down and helped the boy to stop crying. When the boy left for class, I asked what had happened. The teachers showed me a container of grass and explained that the gogo had found the kids eating those grasses in the bushveld. I had no response, and sat there fighting tears until I had to go to class.

Food security is important to me, as I live in such a food insecure village. That is why I focus on the school garden and the development of home gardens. That is why I am working with learners to teach them how to garden. I want to give them a future where they know how to feed themselves, even if they are stuck in the cycle of poverty.

I found out about World Food Day on Sunday, and forgot to mention it to my garden counterpart on Monday. So I went to school today with a plan, and approached her about doing a tree planting demonstration with Grade R. She agreed, and we rounded the Grade R’s up before school let out and taught them about trees and how they can benefit the garden (mainly as shade and a windbreak) and how that means we can grow better food. Then the learners all planted Karee Boom seeds, and now we have about 75 seeds waiting to sprout, in addition to the 30 Moringa seeds we planted last week.

As you read this, consider where your food comes from. Be thankful that you live in a food secure society (if you’re my American friends) and remember that hunger is real, and deadly. It can be hard for those of us from developed societies to understand the importance of food because we typically don’t have to wonder if we are going to eat today. But remember that much of the developing world struggles to feed itself. Today, on World Food Day, more than 7,500 children under the age of 5 will die from hunger (World Vision).

That’s something we can’t ignore.
-Jen

Planting Karee Boom seeds.

Planting Karee Boom seeds.

Say TREES! That's how we get them to smile.

Say TREES! That’s how we get them to smile.

Our newly planted Karee Boom seeds, and Moringa seeds behind.

Our newly planted Karee Boom seeds, and Moringa seeds behind.

The school lunch, and maybe the only meal of the day for some learners. split pea soup and bread.

The school lunch, and maybe the only meal of the day for some learners. split pea soup and bread.