Economic crisis is a food crisis

The PACSA Food Price Barometer tracks the monthly prices of the foods in the trolleys of households living on low incomes. It is specifically designed to measure food price inflation as experienced by households living on low incomes. The crisis of the economy is not only being reflected on our plates but our plates are a reflection of the economic crisis.The food on our plates is a critical tool to analyse the economy and the political choices being made in South Africa’s governance.

The media statement issued on 16 October 2017 by PACSA is structured to provide some key data from the annual 2017 PACSA Food Price Barometer; position the deepening crisis on our plates within the economy and provide an overview of South Africa’s economic and poverty indicators to understand the extent and structure of the crisis, government’s response thus far, and how households living on low incomes are responding to the deepening economic crisis. It also sets out to provide core suggestions as to what needs to be done to mitigate the impact of the economic crisis.

The PACSA Food Basket has increased by 23.3% over the past three years. The cost of the PACSA Food Basket has come down off its 2016 highs. However, prices only started dropping on supermarket shelves from July 2017 and are still reasonably marginal considering that they are coming down off the massive price shocks of the preceding year.

The price of the PACSA Food Basket in September 2017 is still 16.1% (R264.88) higher than pre-drought levels recorded on supermarket shelves in November 2015 (from R1 648.10 in November 2015 to R1912.98 in September 2017).

The delay in the drop of food prices and the lower decrease in food prices meant that the year on- year inflation on the foods which households on low incomes try and buy each month averaged 10.1% from September 2016 to September 2017.

This scale of inflation is extraordinary. Households on low incomes have been under enormous strain over the past year. The current price of the PACSA Food Basket is more than half (55%) of the yet to be implemented National Minimum Wage (R3 500 a month) and two-thirds (66%) of the latest median wage figures for Black South African Workers (R2 900 a month in 2015).

Last year food prices rocketed. In response to high levels of food price inflation particularly on the big ticket items of maize meal, rice, flour, sugar, sugar beans and cooking oil; women had to cut back on nutritious food. Since July 2017 the prices of all major starches and most of the important foods women must have in their trolleys have come down but women are not buying more food. The trolley is still very limited.

Women are saying that although food prices have started coming down since July 2017, these decreases have not made food more affordable. This is because of several reasons. One of these reasons is the level of income coming into homes has decreased. Women say that members in their families have lost their jobs. Piece work has all but dried up and the value and flow of remittances has decreased. Annual increment increases on wages, old-age grants, disability grants and child support grants, off a low baseline has not been enough to keep up with the inflation levels on goods and services experienced by households living on low incomes.

Also, the extraordinary levels of food price inflation driven by the drought over the past two years has provided retailers extensive scope to manipulate weights, packaging sizes and prices. Women tell us that supermarkets are short weighting their products, tampering with expiry dates and selling old and poor quality food.

Households are underspending on food by 54% a month. This gives a sense of the deep crisis we are in. Women are forced to prioritise the starchy foods which provide energy and other foods which are essential in making meals, most of which have very little nutritional value. Women use what is left in the food budget after these foods have been secured to purchase nutritionally-rich foods of meats, dairy, eggs, vegetables and fruit but the volumes of these nutritionally-rich foods are so low that women prioritise the bulk of these foods for their children’s plates. It is a critical approach to secure their children’s growth and development, health and well-being. If they did not employ this drastic approach, their children would be deprived of critical minerals, and vitamins for too long a period and the implications of the prolonged period of deprivation would have both immediate and longterm effects.

Women are telling us that their affordability situation has deteriorated and that their safeguards to buffer against any more shocks no longer exist, there is very little left to offer up any resistance.

What we are seeing then is not so much a change in the foods in the trolley but changes in the plates, and particularly on the plates of women. The sacrifices that women are making by using their bodies to buffer the economic crisis are coming at great cost to women’s health, well-being and sense of freedom.

The crisis on our plates is being driven by the deepening crisis in our economy. South Africa has been in an economic crisis for several years. The scale of unemployment for Black South Africans is untenable and has stagnated at shockingly high levels. The racialised structural inequity in our labour market has not changed. Black South African workers who do have jobs are paid poverty wages. Black South African households have been under severe financial strain for several years. Statistics South Africa shows that while Black South Africans constitute 80.8% of South Africa’s population, only 4 out of 10 Black South Africans of working age have a job. The expanded unemployment rate for Black South African workers is 40.9% and in Black South African households typically only one person has a job and this wage must support 3.8 persons. 27% of South African children under the age of five years are stunted.

Government adopted an apparently inviolable economic framework entirely unsuited to serve a society where transformation had not yet been achieved. Economic crises under capitalism are not unexpected. They happen and they happen often. Because they happen certain safeguards need to be in place. What we are seeing however is that many of the safeguards that are needed in times of economic crisis under capitalism are not there. The structural problems in our economy, many of them historical and which have yet to be transformed, have worked to escalate the damage caused by our current period of economic crisis.

In the midst of a deepening economic crisis the state has not used its power and the instruments that are available to it to mitigate the crisis by increasing all baseline wages to a living wage. It has not stepped in to crack the acute consolidation of the few big players across our food value chains or even attempted to regulate the practices, profits and power of big agriculture, the processors and retailers.

Instead, the only solution offered by the state is the very same one which led to the crisis in the first place: low-paid job creation. But there is no evidence in official statistical data that South Africa has been able to create jobs over the past several years or to pay workers higher wages. In effect, the state has done nothing to buffer the economic crisis. The state has shifted its responsibility to mitigate the impact of the crisis onto households in a context which provides no support. Whilst households wait for the ever more mythical jobs to come they have simply been left to fend for themselves.

Women are carrying the burden of the economic crisis in their bodies. It should not be like this. It is not acceptable. Black South African women living on low incomes and caring for families should not have to bear the total burden of a political and economic crisis that they had no part in creating.

For the more detailed and insightful statement released on World Food Day on PACSA’s Food Basket Price Barometer, visit

Previous Women’s liberation: struggles to free ourselves and society
Next Unemployment still high among youth