How the future of food could further promote exclusionism, entrench poverty and erode GDP

by Andy Du Plessis

“But mommy, I’m hungry now!”

How does one even begin to respond to the constant pleas of a child that is hungry and can’t understand why there is no food in the home? This is the reality for millions of children across South Africa who go to bed and school hungry.

In South Africa 14 million people, mostly children and women, experience chronic hunger because of food insecurity, while a further 14mn are at risk. Parents are powerless to meet the most basic need of their children – the need for food, because of severe poverty. This cruelly impacts human dignity and human development – which entrenches poverty and significantly stifles the growth and development of especially our poor people and our country.

Undernutrition is considered the number 1 risk to health worldwide. Citing India as an example, Yannik Foing, a nutrition expert with DSM Nutritional Products argues that India could lose 2,5% of its GDP ($46bn) by 2030 because of malnutrition.

In the 2019 Waste Not, Want Not report, the Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) agrees with Foing’s assessment, noting that hunger has a high cost to individuals, families and societies. “Countries with very high levels of poverty and chronic malnutrition face long term reductions in the human capital necessary for social and economic growth.”

We live in a country where only those who can afford to buy food, get the benefit of this nourishment – even though South Africa produces enough food to feed all its people. Structural poverty, supply chain dynamics, and market forces exclude nearly 50% of our population from enjoying basic foods and a diversity of foods on a regular basis to maintain good health. The recent increase of the unemployment rate to 29% is further cause for concern, to say the least, as more and more people struggle daily to survive.

If the current trajectory continues, the future of food will result in millions of people being excluded from accessing food on a more permanent basis, simply because they can’t afford it. The cumulative effect of this growing crisis is devastating. The WWF argues that the visible manifestations of the systems failures include food poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, a lack of dietary diversity, child wasting and stunting, increased vulnerability to disease and obesity. There is growing consensus that this situation poses a major threat to public health, and that its greatest impact is on the poor, who are often the most food insecure.

A recent survey conducted by Old Mutual shows that even the rich are feeling the pinch and trying to figure out how to save money and cut down on their monthly expenses. Nearly 50% of the rich say that they are looking for cheaper brands, discounts and specials. Food and groceries are the areas where consumers are trying to save money. (Business Insider: 16 July 2019). If wealthy people are feeling the pinch, it tragically means that the poor live in a dire state of extreme anxiety and a constant fight for survival.

Yet, there is a glaring opportunity to help alleviate food insecurity. Most of the surplus food in South Africa ends up as food waste because farms and food manufacturers do not redirect it to organisations like FoodForward SA. Instead, this edible food is either dumped or incinerated.

Food redistribution or foodbanking as it is commonly known across the world, should be a moral and economic imperative given our context. Not only does this make moral and ethical sense, but it is also good business for farmers and food manufacturers to donate (divert) food because there are huge cost savings and tax breaks by avoiding dumping / incineration costs, and it saves the environment from further harmful greenhouse gas emissions. According to research conducted by the CSIR, the cost of food waste to our economy is around R10bn annually.

Developed countries such as France and Italy have laws that make it illegal to dump food that is edible. More countries are looking to apply similar laws to address hunger and protect the environment. Surplus food should be donated to charities that address hunger. In Canada, 1 in 5 people have used a foodbank in their lifetime. Jason Tetro, a Canadian health and hygiene expert states that foodbanks do more than provide food to the hungry. They can help to increase the variety of foods people eat and contribute to better health.

The foodbanking model meaningfully delivers progress to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) 2: Ending Hunger, and SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production. There is a huge opportunity across the food value chain to donate surplus food. Instead of handling it as waste, it should be treated as surplus food that should be carefully managed, and donated to charities that address hunger at scale.

South Africa presented its first SDG report in July at the United Nations. But progress is slow and reporting on progress is also slow. The University of Pretoria suggests the following to move forward:

  1. Gather complete and reliable data
  2. Take the data seriously
  3. Benchmark against other countries
  4. Forge new types of partnerships

Credible data is vital if we are to formulate effective plans to address food insecurity at scale. And, we need to do things differently. Forging new partnerships and allowing innovation to drive change is key to making sure everyone has access to good healthy food.

FoodForward SA partners with various actors in the food value chain – farmers, manufacturers and retailers. And, the variety is advantageous to health. More than 80% of the surplus food that FoodForward SA recovers is nutritious food.

Yannik Foing states that nutrition is the best investment to make in the development sector because it consistently delivers one of the highest returns on investment in social development compared to any other area of development. He says that for every $1 spent on nutrition, there is a $16 return.

Currently, for every R1 donated to FoodForward SA, R11 worth of food value is recovered from the supply chain. Furthermore, donated food allows charities to direct savings made on grocery purchases elsewhere. Foodbanking is a viable and cost effective solution to address food insecurity as its benefits ensure that protracted hunger and its devastating effects are minimised.

Because of the growing need, and because there are various opportunities, FoodForward SA is embarking on an ambitious 5 year plan to scale our reach. The elements of the plan include:

  • Reaching 1mn people daily through a network of 2,000 beneficiary organisations
  • Expanding FoodShare, our digital platform that connects beneficiary organisations to retail stores for the regular collection of surplus food
  • Expanding our Second Harvest outreach to farmers to recover fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Expanding our Mobile Rural Depot model to reach 30 vulnerable rural communities across the country
  • Expanding our Supply Chain Youth Internship for unemployed youth across the country

Innovative partnerships are essential as we seek to find hunger solutions and stem the tide of food insecurity and create a nation that is resilient, healthy, and where everyone has equal access to good healthy food.

Andy Du Plessis

Managing Director of FoodForward SA