Poor are paying more for basic food baskets

Thanks to the drought, and the hike in both electricity and transport costs, the price of a basic food basket for low-income households escalated to its highest level to date according to the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (PACSA)… Can consumers keep up? Alina Hardcastle investigates.

Price increases

Last month’s findings display that the PACSA basket, which is not nutritionally complete but a reflection of what lower-income households of seven people are consuming, increased by R318.60 (20%) from R1,623.75 in August 2015 to R1,942.42 in August 2016.

Sugar prices also escalated with a 10kg bag of white sugar increasing by R11, moving the total price of the bag to R136.82. This is a 26% increase from last year.

And other staples that drove food basket’s prices up included: Samp, Maas and eggs; along with vegetable prices that saw an increase in potatoes onions and carrots.

Lack of nutrition

Followed by the food price increases, PACSA studies reveal that consumers are under spending on nutrition as the difference between the PACSA food basket (not nutritionally complete) and the PACSA minimum nutritional food basket (nutritionally complete) is R2, 382.82 (R1 942.42 vs. R4 325.24).

Julie Smith, research and advocacy coordinator at PACSA says: “Because food is still one of the few expenses households can control; women, in order to secure household functionality, cut back on nutritionally rich foods (protein, dairy and vegetables) to secure the core basic foods (maize meal, rice, flour, sugar, salt and oil).”

She adds: “Women living on low-incomes cannot absorb price increases by spending more money.  Instead, when prices go up; women reduce their expenditure. Over the last few years we have found that households have cut their expenditure down to critical levels. Many of these expenditures cannot be reduced any further without dire consequences for household functionality.”

Social grants and pension

Another concern was that the minimum nutritional requirements of a child, between the ages of three to nine years, escalated to R554 in August while the current value of state child support grant is R350 a month. The cost nourishing an elderly person over 65 years is R605 a month for a woman and R644 a month for a man, whereas the current old-age pension is R1, 500 a month.

Karen de Kock, member of the provincial legislature of the Democratic Alliance (DA), highlights that South Africa’s baseline wages and grants are far too low.

Earlier this year during a debate on the Appropriation Bill, the DA proposed an increase in social grants. Unfortunately the proposal was voted down by the ANC, who maintain that the current financial value grant is sufficient.

De Kock says: “In a written reply to a parliamentary question I asked on 7 June, Bathabile Dlamini Minister of Social Development said that R753 should be enough for grant beneficiaries to buy adequate food as well as additional non-food items.”

She adds: “Such a response might be expected from somebody who earns R191 000 per month and who clearly has no need to check food prices. For the rest of us it is obviously not enough.”

Other problems

De Kock also addresses two further issues: unemployment and poverty. She explains: “Unemployment in South Africa has become a fixed condition. As a result, it is not only one person who utilises the grant for survival but entire families.”

When addressing poverty she states that not only can families not afford basic nutritional food but they cannot meet other basic needs i.e. clothing, transport, housing costs, nappies etc.

De Kock feels that in order to address the current situation in South Africa we are going to need not only significant economic growth, and better education and health care, but a significant increase in social grants.


Until such time, consumers need to find alternative solutions. Kari Jonker, a registered dietician who has collaborated with the Department of Education on their School Nutrition Programme, offers some tips for lower-income households during these trying times.

  • Plan ahead: Plan out a weekly “food schedule” or “menu”. The shopping list can be drawn up based on what is needed for the week and will include important things. Blindly shopping for various things often leads to buying unnecessary food options, and food wastage.
  • Portion size: Stick to healthy portion sizes and don’t over eat. “A palm size of protein, for example, is sufficient at a meal to meet protein requirements, yet most households have two or three times that amount, if not more,” says Jonker.
  • Don’t buy cool drinks: Jonker strongly advises against purchasing ‘cool drinks’ as it adds no value to your diet. Water is the only necessity.
  • Cut out sugar – Sugar is another household basic that actually is not necessary, and avoid things like coffee creamers for example, which also add no value to your diet, and rather buy real milk, which has many nutrients in.

Jonker says that food should be seen as your medicine. Eating well means that we are supporting our immune system and our body, and overall we are cutting the risk of getting sick.

Smith concludes: “Food is core to the human endeavour. The affordability crisis around food which finds households unable to secure a range of nutritious, sufficient and diverse foods means that the majority of South Africans are not able to achieve their full humanity.”