Price hikes, health plunges: How rising food costs take a toll on South Africans

The high cost of living is bad for the health of South Africans.(File Image)


South Africa could see more undernutrition and obesity cases when the health impacts of rising food prices start to reveal themselves. Social justice activists, health experts and economists agree that the high cost of living jeopardises the health of women, children, the elderly and low-income families. 

Hayley Cimring, Nutrition Science Team Leader at the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA says people who change their diet for economic reasons could develop a range of nutrition-related disorders and diseases. “This can present as under-nutrition, such as wasting and stunting in children, but also as overweight, obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs)such as cardiovascular disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers”. activist Palesa Ramolefo says rising food prices severely and directly impact low-income households. “Low-income consumers have always had limitations in accessing affordable and nutritious foods. Spatial planning and socioeconomic issues in townships and rural areas also mean that people must travel far to get nutritious food. People are left with no choice but to opt for the closest, cheapest and most convenient food, which may not be the most nutritious,” says Ramolefo.

She says it is more convenient for some people to buy a meal from a fast-food restaurant after work than it is to buy vegetables to cook, especially with the high cost of electricity and the constant power cuts.

Basic foods becoming a luxury

Four years ago domestic worker Hulisani Mudzhadzhi spent R5 for a loaf of bread. Today she shells out R9.  The mother of four from Mashau village, outside Louis Trichard in Limpopo earns R2500 a month as a domestic worker. But a basic food basket costs almost double her earnings. She gets a R480 child support grant for her youngest child. This grant will increase by R20 on 1 April. Consider that between December 2022 and January 2023 the cost of the household food basket increased by R64.35, and the reality of a R20 increase is stark. 

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group found the household food basket which consists of 44 basic foods such as rice, maize, oil, and beans now costs R4 917.42. This is 10.5% (R516.40) more expensive than in January 2022 when it cost R4,401.02. The group tracks monthly food prices as part of their household affordability index. “Everything is expensive overnight. For most basic food items, we are now paying more than what we were paying a few years ago,” says Mudzhadzhi.

She says she prefers to buy her food at local shops as they can be cheaper than bigger supermarkets and she also saves on transport costs. She says quantity over quality is often the compromise. Her monthly grocery basket includes a 50kg bag of maize, cooking oil and protein in the form of chicken feet, tinned beans and fish. She says she does not buy vegetables as they do have a vegetable garden at home,

“I always prefer to buy food items from the local shops, as I do not have to pay a taxi fare and most of their prices are reasonable compared to the big supermarkets in town, though most of their products’ quality is not the same as those in big supermarkets are. And the way in which most basic items are expensive, we eat to fill our stomachs” she says.

Children’s future is at risk

Ramolefo says it’s worrying that a quarter of children in South Africa suffer from stunting, which is caused by the mother not eating enough nutritious food during pregnancy and the early years of life.

“If food was affordable and if pregnant mothers had financial assistance like a maternal benefit grant, it could help turn the tide,” stated Ramolefo. 

UNICEF states that South Africa has the highest percentage of overweight children under 5 and adolescents 10-19 years in the Eastern and Southern Africa Region.-While an alarmingly high number of children suffer the consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them.

How to eat healthy?

Cimring says that eating healthy includes limiting foods high in “bad” (trans and saturated) fats, salt and added sugars. Examples of these foods include deep-fried and processed foods and sweetened beverages. It also includes eating healthy foods. 

“These include high fibre wholegrain starchy foods such as wholewheat options, a variety of in-season fruits and vegetables, lean and fresh proteins such as skinless chicken and plant proteins as well as healthy fats such as vegetable oils and omega-3 rich fatty fish. As important is the quality of foods we consume, so is the quantity of foods,” says Cimring.

As food prices continue to soar, Cimring says that South Africans should consider the following to eat healthily and maintain healthy bodies.

  • Draw up a budget for food and do your best to stick to it
  • Buy locally produced foods and look out for specials: Look for discounts, coupons, and sales
  • Compare unit prices (rand per gram/kilogram) listed on price tags to find the cheaper brand
  • Buy in bulk, if possible, as single-size items are often more expensive than buying in bulk
  • Buy vegetables and fruit that stay fresh for longer such as butternut, carrots, cabbage, beetroot, onions, apples, and oranges
  • Certain vegetables such as spinach, carrots, tomatoes, and green beans are relatively easy to grow. Homegrown vegetables can be much cheaper than store-bought vegetables.  – Health-e News


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