SWOP Postdoctoral Fellow, Brittany Kesselman, recently published a piece in Project Syndicate on COVID-19 and hunger in South Africa. Read the full article here.

The pandemic has shown the importance of community-based initiatives in fighting food insecurity. Unfortunately, when the United Nations Food Systems Summit convenes this month, few voices of those most affected by hunger will be at the table.

JOHANNESBURG – In South Africa, many people struggle to access sufficient quantities of healthy food. Because their diets are high in processed foods, refined starch, sugar, and fat, they face a double burden of malnutrition and obesity, or what is known as “hidden hunger.” It is hidden because it does not fit the stereotypical image of hunger created by media coverage of famines. But it is everywhere.

To be clear, the problem is not a shortage of food. In South Africa, hunger is a result of lack of access. Getting enough calories and adequate nutrients is largely tied to income. Beyond the high cost of healthy food, hidden hunger in the country reflects the limited availability of nutritious products in low-income areas, the cost of energy for cooking and food storage, and lack of access to land for household food production.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the strict measures imposed to contain its spread brought hidden hunger out of hiding, as many people who had been able to afford just enough food to survive suddenly found themselves going without. According to one study, 47% of households ran out of money to buy food during the early stages of the initial lockdown in April 2020. Job losses, a crackdown on informal vendors, and price increases caused by interruptions in global food and agriculture supply chains all contributed to a sharp rise in food insecurity. Images of long lines for emergency food assistance brought the issue into public view. Increased levels of child hunger in particular were worrying, but unsurprising, given the abrupt closure of schools and school-based nutrition programs.

The pandemic also made the consequences of hidden hunger more apparent. Because adequate nutrition is necessary for a healthy immune system, food-insecure individuals are more likely to become ill. Additionally, there is a correlation between the severity of COVID-19 and diabetes, a disease associated with poor diets. Data from Cape Town suggest that COVID-19 patients with diabetes were almost four times more likely to be hospitalized and over three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than patients without diabetes.

But while COVID-19 increased food insecurity and highlighted the consequences of hunger, it also produced potential solutions for increasing access to affordable, healthy food. In the face of disruptions to global supply chains, more localized food systems began to emerge. Where the government failed to implement adequate measures to offset the economic repercussions of lockdowns or the closure of school nutrition programs, civil-society groups sought to fill the void. Across South Africa, community action networks sprang up to address hunger, with volunteers providing meals and other assistance to fellow community members.

Around Johannesburg, for example, the C19 People’s Coalition sought to link small-scale farmers who lost access to their usual markets to communities in need of food assistance. Unlike most government food packages, which were procured from large corporations and contained nonperishable items with almost no nutritional value, these vegetable packages sought to support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers while also promoting the health of vulnerable households.

And yet the state bears significant responsibility for addressing hidden hunger, particularly in South Africa, where the right to food is enshrined in the constitution. And examples from around the world demonstrate what is possible when a committed government works together with civil society to tackle food insecurity.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, dubbed “the city that ended hunger,” some of the notable programs include “popular restaurants” that serve thousands of subsidized healthy meals every day; subsidized fruit and vegetable shops; a food bank that salvages food waste and distributes prepared meals to social organizations; and farm stalls to connect small-scale producers directly to urban consumers. These and other programs support farmers’ livelihoods and consumer health, while also delivering economic benefits and strengthening communities.

The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit claims it will bring together different stakeholders to create more sustainable and equitable food systems, but grassroots movements, academics, and civil-society groups have criticized the summit for bypassing the existing UN Committee on World Food Security to create a new forum tarnished by undue corporate influence, a lack of transparency, and unaccountable decision-making. These groups have called for a boycott and are organizing a global counter-mobilization.

The big corporations that are set to dominate the UN summit – seed companies, agrochemical producers, food processors, and retailers – do not have real solutions to hunger. Treating food as a commodity to be sold for profit, rather than as a fundamental human right, is precisely what has led to the crisis of hidden hunger. Shockingly, South Africa’s largest supermarket chains managed to generate profits during 2020, even as half of the country’s households were unable to afford food. Retailers boasted of their food donations while paying their workers – who were designated “essential” – some of the lowest wages in the country.