To our great national shame, SA has some of the world’s poorest educational outcomes, ranking near the bottom of all middle-income countries. There is significant room and need for improvement in our education system, and to this end we’ve seen massive promises, including free tertiary education.

We would argue though that the current debate misses a critical dimension of the challenge and fails to address those who should be taking an active part in preparing our children for academic success.

You can’t teach a hungry child; just ask anybody who’s ever tried. A hungry child can’t concentrate, they can’t sit still, they battle to grasp basic concepts — and yet this is the daily reality for many of SA’s children.

Over 27% of children under five in SA are stunted. Stunting is the result of nutritional deficiencies and while children may, in time, catch up physically, the long-term effects of stunting are devastating. Children who have experienced stunting in their early years seldom catch up in terms of cognitive development, school achievement, economic productivity in adulthood and maternal reproductive outcomes. If we don’t work quickly to collectively solve this crisis, there will be very few children who reach their full potential and are actually able to benefit from the offer of free tertiary education.

On the other end of the scale, so to speak, is the startling news that our children are fast becoming world leaders in obesity. According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, SA’s rate of childhood obesity has doubled in six years to the point where 13% are overweight or obese.

The persistence of hunger and malnutrition in SA South Africa relates to a range of complex and interrelated issues spanning environmental, health, sociopolitical and management domains. It also poses a material risk for business and the economy.

Of course, children are largely a reflection of their parents and these statistics of under- and over-nutrition are indicative of what’s happening at the household level. As people move to the cities — more than 60% of the population now live in urban areas — so their diets change, with a clear preference towards quantity, carbohydrates and fats. These changing choices are heavily influenced by price — fresh vegetables and meat are expensive — and successful targeted marketing. Faulting consumers alone for making poor choices ignores the power of corporations to manipulate markets, prices and even our taste buds.

Noncommunicable or lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers are among the top causes of death in the country at about 40%. At the same time, the prevalence of  extra weight and obesity is close to 58% for men and 71% for women. Overweight mothers are at high risk of giving birth too early to underweight babies and can struggle to breastfeed, which further disadvantages the development of the child.

October 16 is World Food Day, a day of action dedicated to highlighting and tackling global hunger.

The persistence of hunger and malnutrition in SA relates to a range of complex and interrelated issues spanning environmental, health, sociopolitical and management domains. It also poses a material risk for business and the economy. Ensuring that a growing population has access to a healthy, affordable and environmentally sustainable diet will undoubtedly remain one of the greatest challenges facing the region and it’s a challenge that necessitates collaboration.

Recent research undertaken on behalf of WWF SA and the Southern Africa Food Lab suggests that while more effective government policy and regulatory intervention will be critical to addressing some of the systemic issues driving food choices, in their absence the food sector must consider the potential of collaborative industry initiatives as a means of addressing nutrition-related health challenges.

The research suggests that the food sector could team up to influence the national diet through such interventions as providing a healthy retail environment; establishing a collaborative innovation group for food manufacturers; engaging with smallholder farmers and fresh produce markets; and identifying opportunities for collaborative social marketing.

In the coming months, WWF SA and the Southern Africa Food Lab will build on the research, convening groups of visionary industry champions in an effort to take this forward.

The stark reality is that poor nutrition has devastating effects on every level and aspect of society, from education to the health sector to the economy. We simply cannot afford to leave this unaddressed.

• Von Bormann is senior manager of the policy and futures unit at WWF SA as well as an advisory board member of the Southern Africa Food Lab. Drimie is director of the Southern Africa Food Lab, housed at the University of Stellenbosch.