“I’m try to be cautious about what I eat but sometimes it comes down to what we have on shelves,”  said 30-year-old Mapula Mathole from Khujwana Village near Tzaneen in Limpopo.

South Africans living rural areas struggle to access fresh healthy food. This is both due to cost and lack of awareness about the dangers of junk food. This is why the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) is beginning to focus its awareness campaigns in rural areas specifically in Limpopo and Eastern Cape. The group is also calling for an increase in the so-called sugar tax to discourage consumers from buying sugary drinks.

“When it comes to soft drinks there is a lot of cheap stuff which is high in sugar and we are forced to drink those,” adds Mathole. “We also don’t have a fresh produce market and we eat what is available and most of that is unhealthy. To access those you have to travel to town which is expensive.”

Raising awareness in rural communities

Rural communities have increasingly become a target for sugary drink manufacturers, said Lawrence Mbalati from Heala.

“Poor people are actually the target market of unhealthy sugar beverages and we are starting to see a shift emerging as people from rural communities move from their traditional way of eating towards eating unhealthy food,” said Mbalati.

Next month, the alliance is kicking off an awareness campaign in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Their aim is empower communities and civil society organisations to spread awareness about the danger of sugary drinks.

Heala wants as many South Africans as possible to understand the link between unhealthy heating and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease and stroke. These and diseases such as osteoarthritis and some cancers are in the top ten causes of death, killing four in ten people, the organisation said.

“We are looking to bring all key stakeholders of the society to the issue because this issue need to be brought to the people…for the campaign for tobacco it was easy because people already knew the harms for tobacco, but for the harms of the unhealthy food and excessive sugar in their diet, people are not aware,” said Mbalati.

Inexpensive and unhealthy

Hazel Shiburi, a 33-year-old mother of three from Ntwanano Village outside Tzaneen in Limpopo admitted that she drinks “a lot of cool drinks.”

“I drink them mostly after eating food or relaxing with family or friends. I don’t really check what’s on the label because I will not understand what’s written. It will be the waste time. Only if the labels are written for anyone to understand that would be better,” she said.

“I will only stop drinking them if they are expensive but for now there are lot of cheap drinks available. Now a two litre of Coke is R25 so I buy cheap ones like Kingsley, which cost only R10 per 2 litre. I have heard over the radio about the damages this drinks can cause in a person’s body but it’s tough for me to let go,” said Shuburi.

Mathole from Khujwana Village agreed that price would make a difference to what she purchases.

“Yes for me price can play a role. If price can be increased I will think twice before buying one and I think even to many others will also do,” she said.

Heala was one of the leading organisations advocating for the health promotion levy. Informally known as the sugar tax, the levy is essentially a tax on sweetened sugary beverages to discourage South Africans from drinking these unhealthy beverages. The Finance Ministry implemented this tax on 1 April 2018,

Manufacturers have instead responded by reformulating the sugar content in many of their beverages. In this way, manufacturers bypass the so-called tax and consumers don’t feel the extra cost that would have discouraged consumption. In this way, cheaper sugary drinks brands are still able to sell their products at even low prices.

Increasing the sugar tax

Heala is now advocating for an increase in the tax to 20% from its current 11%. The alliance has submitted their proposal to treasury and parliament’s portfolio committee on finance.

“One of the things that we are doing is that we know health promotion levy for sugary beverages in the past two years has raised over R5.5 billion. We are actually asking for government to reinvest some of these funds to promote healthy living. Some of the practical steps could be to intensify some of the staple healthy foods and also programmes that promotes healthy living in communities,” Mbalati said.

South Africa has the highest obesity rates in Sub-Saharan Africa and the rates are continuing to soar. Nearly 70% of South Africa’s women and just under 40% of men are overweight or obese. This burden is increasing rapidly. Lower income and rural populations carry the highest burden of overweight and obesity and have the most untreated diseases like hypertension.

This is why the failure to increase the levy to 20% will hit the poorest in South Africa, costing the country billions in lost revenue and lives lost to entirely preventable diseases, according to Mbalati.

Thabo Molele from Topanama Village in Limpopo’s Mopani District welcomes awareness initiatives in his community around healthy eating. Still, the 38-year-old says the labels can be intimidating.

“Watching what you eat it’s very important as you have to be healthy. But they say you must read what is written on the product but those things don’t make sense to me at all I just don’t understand. They should make them clear for everyone,” he said.

“When it comes to cool drinks I think government should ban this cheap drinks or at least regulate them. They are easily accessible and they are not healthy at all,” Molele added.

Still, Molele believes education about eating healthy is just as important.

“I think government should have more awareness campaigns in rural areas and also parents should teach their children about healthy food and living,” he said. —Health-e News