South Africa is likely to experience even more malnutrition and obesity as the power crisis affects the quality of food children eat. Dr Edzani Mphaphuli, executive director at Grow Great, said the impact of load shedding would be more apparent in about two years.
The country faces a double-edged sword of stunting on one edge and obesity on another. Mphaphuli said the poorest children were the most severely affected. Some areas in the country experience load shedding for longer periods than others. Last year the University of Johannesburg released a study showing the inequality and racism in load shedding based on areas and townships in Gauteng.
“Child nutrition is impacted negatively. Our gains as a nation in ending stunting and managing child nutrition will hit a snag. We will see how much impact it will have within the next two years when children born over the past few weeks and months are growing,” said Mphaphuli.
Meals at schools
She said sustained, sometimes unpredictable power cuts, lowered the quality of nutrition offered to children at early childhood centres, schools and homes. Food suppliers to schools face a daily struggle to prevent meals from spoiling as fridges don’t work for hours because of load shedding. Food prices have also increased due to how load-shedding has impacted the entire agricultural sector.
“This then increases the cost of production, which has a ripple effect on the price of food and therefore increases the price of food that the suppliers provide to the school programmes.”
Fresh food sacrificed due to power crisis
According to The Outlier, the December 2022 food basket of staples from six grocery shops cost R385.87 (the cheapest) to R417.21 (the most expensive).
Mphaphuli said unpredictable power supply also forced families to make bad food choices as it was more convenient.
“People are leaning towards fast food because they don’t have time to prepare meals. This creates a bad culture within homes, replacing cooking healthy nutritious meals for children with buying them carbohydrate and fat-dense items like burgers, pizza, magwinya and slap chips.”
Unfortunately, the poorer a family is, the less nutritional value the fast food they consume would be.
“The danger in the increased reliance on fast food makes it so that even when there is electricity, children prefer the quicker and easier option, the unhealthier option.”
Breastfeeding mothers cannot store milk
Mphaphuli said the power crisis also made it difficult for breastfeeding mothers to store their milk safely. This is another way that load shedding impacts early child nutrition and motherhood.
Mothers are then forced to opt for formula, which does not come close to the nutritional value or any protective factors breast milk provides babies. It is also expensive.
“At times, mothers don’t have the electricity to boil the water to make the formula. It’s given to the child diluted, and then the children don’t grow as they should.”
Mphaphuli said infants also face compromised hygiene which could cause illness.
“How do you sterilise your bottles if you were using your microwave to sterilise those bottles and don’t have electricity in your house? How do you boil the water to make the formula if the child is unfamiliar? And also, if you are a mom who previously made your food, pureed it and put it in the freezer, it’s likely to get spoiled.”
This is especially difficult for mothers of very young children.
Mphaphuli said that the country would most likely see children growing up with poor immunity, exposed to continuous bursts of diarrhoea, and unable to grow correctly. This results in an unchanging child health standard that will devastate the country further.
Food storage and quality in schools
The Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) said food provided to learners through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is mostly non-perishable items like lentil soup, samp and beans, mielie pap, tinned fish, and packed soup. It’s not fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat, so the impact on food quality may not be harshly affected.
“In the more rural areas, food isn’t stocked in refrigerators. We know this because we have been researching the NSNP,” said Baone Twala, a researcher at Section 27, specialising in the right to health, including food.
Elijah Mhlanga from the department of basic education said that the school NSNPs are not experiencing significant challenges due to load shedding because many have been using gas or wood fire to cook.
“In schools where there isn’t sufficient storage available, the supplier is asked to bring the food in the morning to be cooked. The initial plan was not really to deal with load shedding but to manage food in the school to ensure food remains safe from food poisoning,” he said
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