With global warnings about the devastating impact world food shortages will have on food security, volunteer Nosisa Mayisela already experiences first hand the desperation of children who don’t get enough to eat and risk death as a result. As a parent coordinator at the Friends of the Children’s Hospital Association (FOCHA) who helps distribute food and give advice to parents at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, Mayisela sees hungry children every day and believes food prices are leaving more children hungry.
Fighting back the tears, she tells how two weeks ago she helped a mother whose seven month old child was brought to hospital with Kwashiokor, a condition arising from severe protein and calorie deficiency. In this case, she said the child had been fed tea instead of milk because the unemployed mother was HIV positive and therefore did not want to breastfeed, but could not afford formula. Suffering from diarrhea, the child was admitted to hospital, but had later died, despite attempts to save her.
South Africa loses 75,000 children a year before their fifth birthday – a staggering 205 children every day – according to the Medical Research Council. And while malnutrition is only one of the killers, along with child birth complications, new borne and childhood illnesses and HIV/Aids, adequate amounts of food play a critical role in reducing child deaths.
Health experts have warned that South Africa is already in danger of missing its goals to meet UN Millennium Development Goals related to child mortality. And while child hunger is not new, for some mothers increased food prices push them into a zone where there is simply not enough food.
One Khayelitsha mother, who receives a monthly food parcel from FOCHA, said: “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t get this parcel because I have three children to feed and clothe.” She said both her and her husband were unemployed and did not have enough money for food. Every month she tried to stretch out the parcel so that her family would have food to last for the whole month.
“It’s important for me to have food at home as both my baby and I need to eat before taking our anti-retroviral treatment.” She said although she received a R210 state child support grant, there was not enough money for nutritional food and she had to rely on her sister, who received a disability grant, or neighbours, when the food parcel ran out.
“I can’t handle the situation when I have to tell my children there is no food at home,” she said. She said in September 2007 her two-year old child had become sick because she had not had any money to buy milk. “I felt guilty, heart sore and responsible for making her sick by not giving her any milk in the porridge,” she said.
FOCHA director Nazrina Teladia said the organisation had noted an increase in demand for assistance, mainly due to unemployment and rising inflation. Teladia said there had been a 20% to 30% increase in demand for food parcels. She said FOCHA had been supplying monthly food parcels to 1,500 families in the greater Cape Town area since April 2007.
In addition, the FOCHA supplied one meal a day to 50 mothers in two wards at Red Cross Children’s Hospital.
Beverley Hendricks, a field worker for Fikelela Aids Project, which is affiliated to the Anglican Church, said demand for food parcels had grown, with distribution over the last two years increasing from 200 to 800.
Hendricks said 800 families in Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Elsies River, Mbwekeni, Belhar and Westlake benefited from the monthly food parcel.
Contacted for comment, Professor David Sanders from the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health, said it was important for South Africa to implement and offer better health services, improve living conditions and eradicate poverty in order to get on track when it came to achieving MDG goals.
Sanders said it was “highly unlikely” that South Africa would achieve the MDGs if these issues were not addressed, as poverty was a leading cause of mortality. Sanders said child mortality rates were “concerning” because although the country was relatively rich there was a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
* Reporting by Yugendree Naidoo. Published in the Cape Argus, 18 July 2008.