Picture: 123RF/Dean Drobot
Picture: 123RF/Dean Drobot

Full marks to retailers for lending a hand in alleviating a pressing problem facing many South Africans when they were ordered to stay away from work during the harshest period of the lockdown: hunger.

It is easy to view retailers — Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar and Shoprite — only as listed stocks or outlets where one goes grocery shopping. 

But listening to retail leaders speak, it is clear that what drives them is more than selling food but, in the words of Pick n Pay chair Gareth Ackerman, “feeding the nation”.  They did this by providing stocked shelves, difficult in the initial weeks of lockdown, but also with large-scale food donations.

Ackerman, in the retailer’s annual report, writes: “Our vital role in society is to keep the nation fed.”

During lockdown, the big four grocery retailers all helped keep many impoverished South Africans from the brink of starvation. 

Woolworths donated more than 750,000 meals to Gift of the Givers. Shoprite chair Christo Wiese said company food trucks were sending food to the poor.  Checkers annual report records that it donated more than R27m worth of surplus food and more than 10-million meals in part through soup kitchens from late March. 

Pick n Pay started the Feed the Nation campaign in April, collecting food and using its warehouse and infrastructure to pack and distribute food parcels donated to two large charities and communities and child- headed households.  It has given away 21-million meals worth R80m since April. 

Pick n Pay CEO Richard Brasher said  in the company’s half-year results presentation that customers trusted them and their network to distribute their donations.

“We reached out to places people have never been, not in good times, let alone bad times. People gave us their money with certainty to get food to the right place until the right time.” 

That was on top of Pick n Pay’s continuing private giving initiatives, which showed that in the past financial year  the Cape Town-based group donated more than 1,600 tonnes of excess food.    

Shoprite has been running generous subsidies on its inhouse bakery bread — which fetches R4.99 when sold — since 2016. In the year to end-June, it sold 63-million loaves. 

Hunger is not only a risk factor for social unrest but also for under-development of children, their decreasing their ability to excel at school and later compete in an ever more sophisticated global economy.  Decades of research link child undernutrition to long-term health problems — and it is a predictor of lower earnings for life. 

Keeping people fed is good for the country’s long-term economic growth and short-term stability. 

Retailers’ role in getting food to the hungriest in lockdown is in stark contrast to the government at the beginning of the epidemic.

University of Cape Town academics in the latest Journal of Democracy detail in 17 pages the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and conclude that “the government utterly failed to ensure poor South Africans could access food during the lockdown”.

They note that the government shut down its massive school feeding programme, depriving close to 10-million children of daily meals.

It is for this reason that charities Section 27 and Equal Education hauled the department of education to court to force it to provide food even if schools were closed. But Equal Education says its latest data from less than two weeks ago shows pupils are only attending school every other day, not getting meals on the days they are not at school — in breach of the court order.  

The first National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey of a nationally representative sample of 7,000 people showed that from February to April one in five people experienced hunger.

 

It is against this backdrop of a hungry nation, inadequate lockdown relief and the harm to children and later economic development that we owe a debt of thanks to retailers and customers who keep citizens and their children fed.

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