‘You pick up 10kg flour and you weigh it in your hands and in ...

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‘You pick up 10kg flour and you weigh it in your hands and in your heart’

Core food costs are rocketing, leaving women juggling desperately to feed families and keep them healthy

Senior reporter
The cost of going the cheapest route for staple food is leaving poor SA women distressed.
Hard choices The cost of going the cheapest route for staple food is leaving poor SA women distressed.
Image: 123RF

The cost of going the cheapest route to put food on the table is leaving cash-strapped SA women distressed and concerned about the health of their families.

The latest household index report by civil group Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMBEJD) has examined the impact of the rising costs of core staples, ranging from maize meal, rice and cake flour to cooking oil and potatoes, on women with low incomes.

The research, while Pietermaritzburg-based, reflects the situation in the rest of SA.

According to the report many of these foods have again shown increases month-on-month.

Between July and August, their cost increased by 2,3%.

Over the past five months of lockdown, the cost increased by 8% and year-on-year it has increased by 15,6%.

One woman told researchers: “You can sit and stare at that 10kg flour on the shelf. You can leave it there and keep coming back to it three or four times while you round the supermarket with your trolley. You can even leave that shop and go to another one, and another one after that to see if you can’t find it at a cheaper price.

“You can carry on staring at the flour on the shelf in that next supermarket, but you know you have to buy it.

“You pick up that 10kg that you eventually choose and you weigh it in your hands. You weigh it in your heart. You hold it close to your chest. You end up buying it because you have children at home,” she said.

“The cost of the core foods is at the highest level we have ever seen,” said PMBEJD’s Mervyn Abrahams.

“We are particularly worried about the increase in prices of the core staple foods in the household trolley. Core staple foods are prioritised first out of the household purse. These foods ensure families do not go hungry and that meals can be cooked.

We are seeing greater shifts towards cheaper brands as a survival strategy because women, while able to work through the obstacles that the cheaper brands bring, are not able to work through the fact that there is too little money available.
Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity

“They include the core starches (maize meal, rice, cake flour, samp and potatoes), foods which allow meals to be prepared and palatable (cooking oil, salt, onions, curry powder, stock cubes and soup) and the key proteins of sugar beans and frozen chicken. Additional foods in this category include sugar and tea.

“The upward shift again of increasing prices on core staple foods for families with less money in their pockets and with children and workers at home is a triple whammy — there have to be implications for increased levels of hunger and deterioration in health and nutrition, for deepening debt levels, and social instability,” stated the report.

Abrahams said there is not a lot women can do in the face of rising prices on core staple foods.

“It is not really possible to reduce the volumes or substitute them with other foods, or drop them out your trolley.”

Moving to cheaper brands of foods when the price of the favoured brand has increased is not simple, according to the report.

“Core staple foods carry the highest risk because the money outlay on these foods is proportionally very high. If the cheap brand turns out to be rubbish, then there is no more money to replace it,” said Abrahams.

“These foods form the basis of most meals and if the taste is too different, then children will complain incessantly and mothers will feel shame. Cheaper staples often take a lot longer to cook. This eats the available electricity and really irritates women, as it steals their time and money, while aggravating hungry children.”

The report said some core staple foods such as maize meal are fortified. “Women know this and worry that the cheaper brand of maize meal is cheap for a reason, and that their children’s already compromised nutrition may be compromised further.”

Women have reported that shifting to cheaper brands comes with a cost: the foods do not last as long, will not cook properly, will go off faster, will cost time and electricity.

“When tallying up the negative consequences it is often cheaper just to stick with the known and preferred brand.

“However, we are seeing greater shifts towards cheaper brands as a survival strategy because women, while able to work through the obstacles that the cheaper brands bring, are not able to work through the fact that there is too little money available.”

“Women tell us that they will switch back to their preferred brand as soon as they get back on their feet,” said Abrahams.

“Women do not really have much choice — core staple foods must be secured, despite shifts to cheaper brands.

“These brands are still expensive while carrying risks which women have to navigate in the kitchen while placating their children,” he said.

“Some women tell us these choices are so painful they rather let the checkout counter be the shock arbiter,” said Abrahams.

The report says that with Covid-19, shopping “is much worse as foods are spiking erratically, women have to make quicker decisions and the risk of making the wrong decision carries a greater financial consequence because there is far less money in your pocket and your children are at home, so food has to last longer.

“Women are telling us they are getting very worried about the cost of foods in supermarkets and their ability to ensure that families are able to be fed.”