When it comes to human rights, such as access to food, which is enshrined in our constitution, debates often revolve around the minimum requirements for people to survive. “This narrative needs to change and the time has come for the government, private businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders to move the goalpost together and start strategising around what people, especially children need to thrive,” says Alef Meulenberg, CEO of youth development NPO Afrika Tikkun. Whilst South Africa has made progress over the past decades in terms of protecting children’s rights, other problems remain. The newest Child Gauge, released in February this year, shows youngsters are as malnourished as they were two decades ago.
Hungry children, jobless adults
A large percentage of children are undernourished and overweight, posing a double set of health and developmental implications that may haunt them into adulthood. “Someone’s weight is no sign of how well-nourished and healthy that person is,” Meulenberg stresses, explaining that stunting is caused by prolonged under-nutrition in a child’s first two years and affects their physical and brain health. “Stunting deters learning, impairs children’s school performance and hurts their prospects later in life, including their chances of success in the workplace,” he adds, referring to research showing that adults who were stunted in their early years are more likely to be unemployed and confined to a life of poverty than those who had enough to eat.
It is critical to improve children’s access to enough quality food, an area of focus for Afrika Tikkun, and central to its Cradle-to-Career-360° model. The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHNES) by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), for instance, shows that at the national level, 43.6% of children under five in South Africa are vitamin A deficient (vitamin A is crucial for healthy brain development). Mealie pap and other ultra-refined foods may make one feel full, but these meals are do not provide the nutrients the body needs.
Meulenberg says, “Nutrition and food security programmes providing families in need with freshly prepared nutritious meals, food parcels, and lunch boxes are beneficial, but it is equally important to teach them to grow their own food. This discourages dependency on handouts whilst making sure people’s right to access to food is met, now and in the future.”
Surviving is not enough
“Having to be constantly on your guard and in survival mode, not knowing where your next meal will come from, whilst being hungry on top of that, clouds your ability to see, identify, seize, and hold on to opportunities that could drive you and your children forward,” says Meulenberg.
The situation many students find themselves in is a case in point, says Meulenberg, referring to research from 2018, which shows that a third of South African university and college students go hungry regularly. This is not just hampering their academic performance. “Some researchers argue that chronic malnutrition is one of the main reasons why half of them drop out before obtaining their degrees and diplomas,” he explains. “This doesn’t hurt only them and job prospects, but also the country as a whole as it hampers our ability to produce the skilled and qualified professionals we need so badly.”
Working together essential
For this reason alone, all stakeholders – the government, civil society, and private businesses – must collaborate their strengths and find collective ways to help young people thrive, succeed, and excel by safeguarding their right to access to food, says Meulenberg. “As Nelson Mandela once said: the true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children. That society he spoke about is all of us, and the children, they are our future.”