The Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action [PACSA] tracks the food prices of a basket of basic food stuffs from four different retail stores in Pietermaritzburg. The basket serves as an index for food price inflation. PACSA in collaboration with UKZN and women living in and around Pietermaritzburg have initiated a project to start a bigger conversation around how increases in food prices affect what we have on our plates, what it means for our bodies and minds, how we are responding to affordability problems and what if anything we can do about it. We are in the process of putting together a picture of food affordability based on conversations with women – about how we speak and think about food and its meaning for us.
The emerging picture below is based on our first round of conversations which we had via way of four focus groups conducted with women in areas around Pietermaritzburg (Gezubuso, KwaDindi, S’nathingi and Mpophomeni) from the 3rd to 8th April 2013. The conversations highlighted very similar experiences and thoughts across geography.
The emerging food price picture
All women said that food prices are becoming more unaffordable. Families are struggling – it is not isolated but becoming increasingly widespread.
Red meat, chicken, beans and dairy products are very expensive. Women indicated that there has been a marked shift in the amounts and types of protein which is eaten. Red meat and bean prices have escalated far beyond the affordability capacity of most families. Cheap cuts of chicken are eaten to secure basic protein albeit women indicated that chicken prices spike and women worry that ‘cheap’ chicken is not like what they remember it to be: it is watery, fatty and the bones are not strong. Much of the dairy products traditionally consumed are far too expensive.
Not being able to secure sufficient quality protein means that our immune systems are vulnerable to infection and illnesses. Our muscles are not being fed; children need protein to grow properly. Deficiencies in iron and the B vitamins are important for our mental functioning. Without them we are easily fatigued, we struggle to think and learn; our bones are not strong, our eyes are not protected and our wounds do not heal properly.
A major worry for many women is that they have noticed that the staples of maize meal, sugar, oil and rice are also becoming increasingly unaffordable. High prices on such staples mean that these must be bought regardless of price. Price increases on staples directly impacts on food diversity – the monies to buy proteins, calcium and micronutrients that our bodies need.
The picture thus is that household diets are severely deficient in energy, protein, calcium, iron and other micronutrients. We are not eating enough and of sufficient variety for our bodies and our brains. This means that we don’t have enough energy, protein or micronutrients to grow and develop: adults don’t have enough energy to work and do ordinary everyday tasks; children don’t have enough energy to develop to their full potential mentally and physically – to study and learn and think at school.
The salticrax effect: food diversity across the month
“At the end of the month sometimes the only thing we have in our fridge is cold water.” (S’nathingi, 05 April 2013).
Struggles to afford a diversity of foods throughout the month are becoming more difficult. Typically women indicated that when money comes in and the monthly shop is done; families eat much better. But as the month draws on meats, eggs, vegetables, dairy products, bread and fruits drop off the plate. Many families are left with only the staples of mealie meal, rice, flour, sugar, salt and oil. Portions sizes shrink. Meals are very carefully planned and measured. Neighbours get approached for help. Mothers go hungry so kids can eat.
Money for food leaves very little left over for anything else
“We really struggle because all our money goes to food. We don’t have money for anything else” (S’nathingi, 05 April 2013).
Most of our household budgets go to paying for food; there is no or very little money left for anything else. Women indicated that food is the priority; everything else is forgone. Domestic hygiene products (soaps, toothpastes, sanitary pads, toilet papers, antiseptics etc.) typically form part of the food budget – these also affect health and dignity – and creates a false- competition between food vs. ensuring that kids are able to bath and put cream on before going to school for example. Transport costs and electricity add to the pressures of keeping families together and healthy. With very little or no money after food; families are pushed into a very tight corner if forced to pay for any other essential requirements or debt such as schooling, health care, transport, municipal services, garnishee orders, burial schemes etc.
The real cost of cheap food
All the women we spoke to said that buying ‘choices’ are based on price. That is not quality, not brand names but if the food is affordable or not. Two additional conditionalities on the price are that the food is “clean” and that it “doesn’t make us sick.”
“If it is cheap and doesn’t make us sick – we buy it” (S’nathing, 05 April 2013).
“We just look at the cost” (Dindi, 04 April 2013).
“If the food is clean and affordable we buy it’” (Gezubuso, 03 April 2013).
Women however said that they have noticed that the cheap food they are forced into buying is not nutritious. Nor is it really necessarily cheap since the quality in many cases is very poor and has longer term affects, which women said is “making us unhealthier and that we are getting sicker more often.” We know, for example, that losses of real protein and micronutrients from cheap foods are replaced with water, soya, fats, sugars and salts.
Women indicated that families tend to cook foods quicker and add soups for flavour and to make up for the loss of real meat; more fats, salt and sugars are added to food for taste. Women indicated that families, particularly children - tend to drink more sugar-sweetened drinks and eat more chips and sweets. People are putting on weight but are not healthy; rather we are getting fatter and having more problems with sugar and ulcers and bone problems. Traditional foods, particularly ones which require long preparation times and consume a lot of energy are not consumed as frequently as before. Electricity prices directly impact on such foods.
Beggar my neighbour?
“We ask from our neighbours. We help one another. We go to one another” (S’nathingi, 05 April 2013).
Capitalism acts to monetarise all relationships. It acts to break down bonds between households and community and replace these bonds with relationships based on money – not humanness, not love, not community, not solidarity. It tells us that we are hungry and cannot support our families because we didn’t study hard enough, we didn’t work hard enough, and we didn’t try hard enough. This system is working on us. We internalise it and increasingly believe that we are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in. Such perceptions and the brutal pressure of capitalism are reflected in the words of an Mpophomeni resident below:
“In the past when our neighbours or friends were with us around supper time, we would all eat together. Now we wait for them to leave before we eat” (Mpophomeni, 08 April 2013).
It is clear that the struggle against capitalism is also the struggle for dignity and community. Numerous women we spoke to however, refuse to submit to this unjust and brutal burden forced on to them.
Struggling households approach one another for help. Neighbours, families and friends subsidise one another. There is solidarity within households – families share what they have when they have it. Sometimes food or money is borrowed. Sometimes it is paid back, sometimes it is not. Sometimes neighbours’ children share the table at supper time. If food is grown, it is shared. Such resistance speaks to John Holloway’s portrayal of how ordinary people can, by apparently everyday acts of humanity and love, crack capitalism. Myriads of infinitesimal cracks hammered into capitalism – unrelentingly - may one day coalesce and force glacial chunks of capitalism to fall into the sea. Let’s not romanticize it however – the struggle is long and capitalism has long thrived on poor people subsidising other poor people.
What is emerging that we noticed helps households deal with high food prices?
Typically we see that if a family has a small vegetable garden or is part of a communal garden, if kids can eat at a school feeding scheme, if transport into town is reasonably affordable, and if electricity can be free or requires very small payment – than families are in a better position than those for whom some or all of these variables are absent.