High food prices cripple orphan feeding programmes

Elizabeth Kineelwe, the cook at a drop-in centre that provides meals and support to orphans and impoverished families in Soweto, Johannesburg's largest township, is on the frontlines of a nationwide struggle to cope with rising food prices. Lately, she has been cooking a lot of cabbage soup.

"I used to grill chicken for the children, but now we can't," she sighed. "Yesterday, I paid R6.19 [US$0.81] for a bundle of cabbage. It used to be two or three rand six months ago."

The cost of basic foods like bread, rice and maizemeal is climbing, but the amount of money the organisation, called Nanga Vhutshilo (Choose Life in the Venda language) Positive Living, receives from the Department of Social Development is not.

"It's the same amount, but it's going quicker," said Sibongile Mazibuko, founder and director of the centre. "It means we must go out and fundraise, but that’s very difficult because even companies we approach have less money to spend on social responsibility."

Other community-based AIDS organisations in Soweto and around the country are facing similar challenges. Elizabeth Rapuleng, who also runs a drop-in centre for children, told IRIN/PlusNews that a local bakery was no longer donating bread. "We've tried to reduce the number of kids we're feeding but they still come here, so we just have to make the food go further," she said.

Global food crisis becomes local

Population growth and changing diets in developing countries have created an expanding demand for food that has coincided with a drop in supply as a result of erratic weather, increased fertiliser prices and the amount of agricultural land now set aside for the biofuel industry.

''We've tried to reduce the number of kids we're feeding but they still come here, so we just have to make the food go further''

The resulting food shortage has been felt all over the world, but 21 of the 36 countries experiencing what the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation defines as a "food security crisis" are in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Everyone's been hit by the rising food prices," commented Peter Smeerdon, a spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme, "but it's the poorest of the poor who will suffer the most."

Prof Alan Whiteside, head of the Health Economics and HIV Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the AIDS epidemic affected the ability of households both to produce and buy food when families lost productive adults to HIV/AIDS. "It results in skipping meals, eating less quality food. It’s a catastrophe on top of a chronic problem," Whiteside told IRIN/PlusNews.

For the many South African households that have already lost breadwinners to the AIDS epidemic, this year's steep rise in food and transport costs are especially hard to bear. Mazibuko said although not all of the 312 children Nanga Vhutshilo Positive Living assisted were HIV positive, all had been affected by HIV in some way.

They often live with grandmothers or older siblings and depend on the centre for daily meals and monthly food parcels to take home. Sarah Motau, 17, who has lived with her aunt and cousins since her mother died three years ago, stops at the centre every day on her way home from school. "Without this place, maybe I'd be a street kid," she said between mouthfuls of vegetable stew.

Her aunt supports the family of eight on one child support grant of R220 (US$29) per month and occasional piece-work. "We rely on the food parcels from here," said Motau. "Without them, there will be poverty."

According to Mazibuko, the social development department may stop funding the food parcels at the end of May, and would only provide funding to feed children who come to the centre. "We’re not a poverty alleviation programme, we’re an OVC [orphans and vulnerable children] programme, but children come with families," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

On Monday, the Department announced the launch of a new programme, called Social Relief of Distress, which will provide food parcels or vouchers to families in "dire material need" for a period of three to six months. The list of those qualifying for this assistance includes families who have lost breadwinners, or have a head of household who is medically unfit to work.

Mazibuko was not optimistic that many of the households her organisation helps would have the necessary documentation to apply. "It would be better if Social Development utilised organisations like this one to help them," she said.

Caregivers also feeling the pinch

The caregivers that community-based AIDS organisations rely on are often only marginally better off than the people they help. Nanga Vhutshilo is also feeling the loss of a number of volunteer caregivers who can no longer afford to take increasingly expensive public transport to the centre. "The economy is pressing all of us," said Mazibuko. "I’ve lost a lot of very good people because I can’t afford to pay them more."

Mpho Mtsiko, 28, a Nanga Vhutshilo caregiver, is supporting nine family members on the monthly stipend of R1,000 (US$130) she receives from the government for working at the centre. Her mother lost her factory job in 1994 and hasn't worked since, and her brother is also unemployed. "If I don't look after them who will?" she said.

Mtsiko's minibus-taxi fares to attend a course in social work have been rising steadily and now consume about 20 percent of her stipend; most of the rest of the money goes on food. In addition, her mother cares for a six-year-old niece who is HIV-positive. "Her health comes first," said Mtsiko. "We try to balance her diet, but it's hard with the food prices."

In a small garden behind the centre, another volunteer is watering some spinach seedlings. "At least we have a garden that provides us with some vegetables, but with winter coming, it’s a problem," said Mazibuko.

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