Economic development

Call for nutrition subsidy to curb child stunting

The non-profit DG Murray Trust is urging the South African government to subsidise food producers and retailers so that they can slash the price of a carefully selected basket of goods by 30% and improve the diet of South Africa’s most deprived children.

The financial newspaper Business Day reports that the aim of the subsidy, estimated at R1.8 billion a year, is to close the gap between what children need and what parents can afford. The Trust’s CEO David Harrison said the move would also signal which foods have the highest nutritional value.

Food price inflation remains high and almost double the consumer price inflation (CPI) rate, while the monthly child support grant is below the Trust’s estimate of the food poverty line, which it has pegged at R709 a month for 2023.

Despite being a middle-income country, South Africa has a high rate of child malnutrition, Harrison said. In 2016 the SA Demographic and Health Survey said more than a quarter (27%) of South African children under the age of five were stunted.

Stunting results from inadequate diet and disease. Children who do not get adequate nutrition — including carbohydrates, protein, fats and micronutrients — may be short for their ages and suffer irreversible damage to cognitive development that carries through into adulthood.

While there are signs that childhood nutrition is improving in the Western Cape, stunting remains high: one in six (17.5%) of the province’s children under the age of five is stunted, down from 27.4% in 2016, according to research released by the Trust.

It has identified 10 food items that it believes represent the best buys for cash-strapped households. It proposes that manufacturers and retailers waive the estimated 30% mark-up on one product label for each of them. 

The products are mostly non-perishable, protein-rich foods, and include: eggs, speckled beans, pilchards, fortified maize, milk powder, soya mince, peanut butter, white rice, soup mix and aMasi, a popular fermented milk product. The trust costed a basket of these goods at R327 a month in February. It emphasised the basket is not meant to provide all of a child’s nutritional needs, as it does not include fruit and vegetables. 

Subsidised products could be sold under retailers’ own brands, or under a national zero-stunting campaign “Grow Great” logo, said Harrison.

The Competition Commission had indicated that food retailers could meet to discuss the prices of these 10 items without contravening the Competition Act, as the move was intended to benefit the public, he said.