The Gauteng government has increased the number of food parcels it distributes to food insecure South Africans, in light of the lockdown put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19. But do these provide enough calories for the average family for a whole month?
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, millions of households in South Africa were already battling food insecurity and hunger. The national lockdown has not helped, with many losing their income as the country came to a standstill.
In response to this, the Gauteng provincial government announced it was increasing the number of people receiving food parcels.
"In Gauteng province we are reaching 2,000 households, that's families of on average four people ... per day," Gauteng premier David Makhura recently told the national broadcaster, the SABC. "We are supplying them with food enough for one month."
What is in the food parcels? And is it "enough" for a family of four for one month?
Almost half of South Africans were food insecure before lockdown
According to the Committee on World Food Security, a household is food secure when "all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".
"In terms of levels of food insecurity, the most recent broad-scale data [on South Africa] is almost a decade old," Florian Kroll, researcher in the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape, told Africa Check.
The 2012 South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that 26% of South Africans experienced hunger. In Gauteng, the figure stood at 19.2%.
Who gets a food parcel and why?
Makhura's spokesperson referred our queries to the department of social development.
The department's Gauteng spokesperson, Thabiso Hlongwane, told Africa Check that the relief programme previously supported women, children and disabled people.
The programme is now being expanded to include the unemployed and those earning less than R3,600 per month.
What's in a food parcel?
Gauteng department of social development spokesperson Thabiso Hlongwane told Africa Check that food is received from donors and collected in a central location.
"The central food bank then feeds all five food banks in all five regions in Gauteng," he said. Because the food is donated, the parcels might have items from different brands, but each parcel contains:
12.5 kg of maize meal
5 kg of rice
1.5 litres of oil
4 cans of baked beans
5 kg of instant porridge
5 kg of macaroni
5 sachets of instant soup
5 kg of sugar
750 g of powdered milk
500 g of soya mince
375 g of "phuza mandla" powder (a high energy meal or drink)
Toothpaste, soap, one wash cloth, condoms and sanitary towels are also included. The parcel is "packaged to last one month", Hlongwane said.
Africa Check asked what methods were used to calculate how much food is enough for one month. He said "it would be very difficult to determine".
"Your groceries for a month might differ from mine ... however, these are standardised, full social relief packs. If you receive a package of this nature ... you must be able to know how to save to be able to provide for your family for three to four weeks."
Calorie content less than UN recommendation
According to the United Nations, a person in an emergency situation - like a drought or economic disaster - needs at least 2,100 calories per day. This is also the daily amount of calories in the World Food Programme's standardised food basket. This threshold is used by Statistics South Africa as the benchmark for the food poverty line.
How does the calorie content of the Gauteng government's food parcel compare to this?
Africa Check's calculations show that the entire food parcel amounts to approximately 137,394 calories. (Note: We determined the calorie content using the nutritional information from similar items included in the parcel.)
For the parcel to last a family of four a month, each person would have to restrict themselves to 1,145 calories a day. This is just over half the daily calories the United Nations and World Food Programme recommend.
Energy needs differ according to age group
A diet of 1,145 calories a day is too low for a sedentary (inactive) adult, Zandile Mchiza, associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape, told Africa Check.
According to the World Health Organization and South African dietary guidelines, inactive adults, like those staying at home, need between 1,500 and 2,000 calories each day. The calories provided by the parcel are also below the recommended level for children.
A person could survive on 1,145 calories a day, Mchiza said, but may lose weight and would not get essential nutrients.
"Even if you are an inactive individual, there is a cut-off limit for calories needed to sustain your basic metabolic functions, including the proper functioning of your organs, namely the brain, kidneys, heart, lungs and nervous systems. Consuming a very low calorie diet may not be able to sustain these functions"
Parcels are deficient in terms of nutritional value
The type of diet also needs to be considered, Mchiza said. "It seems as though this is a starch-based diet, meaning that most of the energy could be coming from refined carbohydrates."
Including more protein from good sources - like tinned fish - would help people feel fuller for longer.
Her concerns are echoed by Kroll: "There does not seem to be adequate protein. Four cans of baked beans and 500 g of soya mince won't do the trick for a household of four."
Parcels are per household, regardless of size
The Gauteng premier claimed that the food in the parcel is "enough for a month" for a family of four. But the daily energy it provides is just over half the amount recommended by international and local authorities.
A family of three would see their daily consumption increase to 1,527 calories, while a family of five would need to get by on just 916 calories each.
Will bigger families receive more food? "Not necessarily," Gauteng's department of social development spokesperson told Africa Check. In order to reach everyone in need, the department is estimating based on families of four.
Food parcels meant to 'supplement' other sources
"The food parcels are per household regardless of size. It would be impractical and logistically difficult to pack or prepare at the central point and then customise. One has to have a balanced approach," he said.
"I would say that the food parcel is meant to supplement the food in the household, as well as any social grants a family may be receiving."