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Malnutrition is a “slow violence” against South Africa’s children

South Africa is failing its children. More than one in four young children in the country are stunted –– a percentage which has remained static over the last three decades. Poor nutrition is one of the main causes of stunting, in which a child’s growth and development are impaired. 

Things are even worse since the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown pushed breadwinners into unemployment and kept children away from schools –– and what was sometimes their only meal.

FTFA’s school gardens have kept food on children’s plates –– but we need many more

For 30 years, Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) has been supporting schools to develop and sustain food gardens. These gardens, based in the communities in which learners live, allow them to access the healthy food they need to thrive. We need to urgently ramp up these efforts and increase the number of school and community food gardens to fight back against the malnutrition plaguing the country. 

“With one of the largest economies and higher stunting levels than some of its poorer African neighbours, South Africa’s child food and nutrition insecurity is linked to the grotesque inequities that characterise the country and which must be addressed with urgency,” according to the recently released Child Gauge 2020 report. “They reflect a slow, hidden and cumulative violence against South Africa’s children that is in conflict with the country’s Bill of Rights and Constitution and is a violation of their rights.”

Malnutrition is a “slow violence” that hurts South Africa’s children

The term “slow violence” was originally used for the effects of climate change and deforestation on the environment and poor communities, explain the report’s authors. It describes gradual, often invisible, but devastating consequences.

“Malnutrition casts a long shadow on children and their futures, robbing them of health and well being and condemning them to continued ill-health whilst undermining their chances to learn, to earn and to escape poverty,” First Lady Dr Tshepo Motsepe said at the launch of Child Gauge 2020. “It is a slow violence against our children, and we cannot thrive as a country when our children are shackled to a life of hunger and malnutrition.”

According to the 2020 Global Nutrition Report, “Inequities in food and health systems exacerbate inequalities in nutrition outcomes that in turn can lead to more inequity, perpetuating a vicious cycle.” 

This cycle is particularly important in South Africa, in which many people are already stuck in intergenerational poverty.

Schools can be hubs of nutrition as well as learning

One way to push back against this slow violence is by creating spaces in which children can access healthy food in a safe environment.

“Hungry children will go in search of food, leading them onto the streets and unsafe environments,” warned Dr Motsepe. “Children who are hungry cannot concentrate and learn. Children who are hungry become vulnerable to negative elements who will feed and manipulate them.” However, if schools become hubs of nutrition and learning, it creates a space that nurtures both their minds and bodies.

The EduPlant programme, created and run by Food & Trees for Africa since 1994, offers schools in under-resourced communities and townships the resources, training and support they need to develop or improve their food gardens. This is vital for learners’ nutrition and food security, and the gardens are ‘living classrooms’, with teachers using them as the basis for lessons.

FTFA’s Grow Your Own initiative brought food to those who needed it most

During the lockdown in South Africa, millions of people went to sleep hungry. In response to the pandemic, FTFA launched its Grow Your Own initiative, inviting people around the country to apply for seedlings to grow food for themselves and their communities. It has distributed almost 720,000 seedlings. Through this effort, FTFA was able to bring healthy, sustainable food to some of the people who needed it most.

FTFA qualified as an essential service provider during hard lockdown, and distributed more than 126,000 additional seedlings to help school food gardens meet the greater demand for food in their communities.

School food gardens are “anchors” in local communities

“This year really highlighted the resilience of teachers and learners,” says Bharathi Tugh, who has been with EduPlant since 1995. “A whole new dynamic evolved: the skills transferred from the schools to the surrounding community. People went home and started to plant.”

It’s not just a school programme anymore, she says. “The school is the anchor, and we have all the waves going out to the community.”

The plan going forward is for the EduPlant programme, endorsed by the Department of Basic Education’s National School Nutrition Programme, to “evolve into food security hubs in the communities who live around the schools”, says FTFA executive director Chris Wild.

Every little bit helps –– South Africa needs collective action to overcome malnutrition

Malnutrition, and its underlying inequalities, is larger than a single individual, school, and organisation. But working together –– one child, one school at a time –– we can make a difference to the overwhelming problem of food scarcity and poor nutrition. School food gardens are a low cost way of making a disproportionate impact in the lives, and futures, of learners.

Donate to FTFA to plant more food gardens around South Africa.

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