Feeding the poor: The national government has failed

03 June 2020 | Story Jeremy Seekings. Photo Flickr. Read time >10 min.
Because of the suspension of national school feeding, much less food has been distributed in total under the lockdown than before it.
Because of the suspension of national school feeding, much less food has been distributed in total under the lockdown than before it.

The national government has comprehensively failed to feed the poor during the lockdown it imposed on them, says the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Jeremy Seekings.


  • National government has comprehensively failed to feed poor people during the lockdown it imposed on them.
  • Under the lockdown, the national government shut down its massive school feeding programme, depriving nine million children of daily meals.
  • The national government had no plan to ensure food reached poor households.
  • It has been left to civil society – individuals and organisations, as donors and as volunteers – to try to fill the gap, with assistance from provincial and local governments.
  • Civil society deserves massive praise for its effort, but it has not even been able to fill the gap left by the suspension of the school feeding programme.
  • The total number of food parcels distributed is less than one-tenth of what has been needed urgently.
  • Because of the suspension of national school feeding, much less food has been distributed in total under the lockdown than before it.

The deepening food crisis

The national government comprehensively failed to feed poor people during the lockdown imposed on them. Parliament has done nothing to hold the government to account. It has been left to civil society – individuals and organisations, as donors and as volunteers – to fill the gap, with some assistance from provincial and local governments.

National government should be ashamed. Civil society deserves much, much praise.

South Africa was already experiencing a food crisis prior to the lockdown. This was evident in a study published in 2019 by the parastatal Statistics South Africa (StatsSA, 2019) and in assessments by civil society organisations. The national Department of Social Development acknowledges that, in 2018, close to one million households had “severely inadequate access to food” and another 2.5 million households had “inadequate access” – giving a total of close to 14 million people, prior to the lockdown.

The lockdown worsened the food crisis. Millions of people depending on informal livelihoods have been left without any income. Civil society experts have estimated that as much as half of the South African population needs food aid.

So the government suspended school meals

The immediate effect of the lockdown was that South Africa’s existing public feeding schemes were suspended without any plausible plan to set up compensatory emergency systems. Put simply, just as the need for food escalated, the state locked the doors of its food cupboard and walked away.

The closure of schools meant that nine million children no longer received daily school meals under the National School Nutrition Programme. When asked (in May) what measures the Department of Basic Education had put in place to feed schoolchildren, the Minister lamely replied that a National Food and Nutrition Security Task Team – apparently located in the presidency itself – had agreed to bear schoolchildren in mind when handing out food parcels through the national Disaster Relief and Social Relief Management Programme.

South Africa has had for decades a series of national plans and task teams dealing with food security, coordinated by ‘task teams’, but this process seems to have stalled. A new five-year National Food and Nutrition Security Plan was drafted in 2017, by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME), which is located in the presidency (although it is not clear whether the plan was ever approved or adopted). But I cannot find anybody who has ever heard of this grandly-titled National Food and Nutrition Security Task Team (or its Disaster Relief and Social Relief Management Programme). Neither the education department nor the DPME have replied to my requests for clarification.

The government was therefore left sitting on an unspent budget for feeding schoolchildren of close to R1 billion per month (R7 billion for the school year). This budget falls under a conditional grant to the national Department of Basic Education; it is earmarked for school meals. I am told that the national Department of Basic Education refused to allow provincial education departments to use the conditional grant to continue with school feeding under the lockdown. Very early in the lockdown (on 27 March), the National Treasury circulated a memorandum advising provincial governments that they could use up to 5% of the annual funding for the school feeding scheme to run emergency feeding schemes for school children – subject to parliament approving this. I am told that the national Department of Basic Education never organised parliamentary approval. I assume that the funds remain unused.

The Department of Social Development tells me that “At the beginning of the lockdown we contacted the Department of [Basic] Education” asking about plans for school feeding; “we were told that kids will eat what they used to eat while schools were closed”. (The Department of Social Development does not appear to have known about the Treasury’s attempt to make funds available for emergency school feeding.) It is said that the education department was viewing the lockdown as a school holiday and schools would catch up on teaching days – and, presumably, school meals – later in the year. With hindsight this (if true) was a bad call, but even at the time the education department surely erred in thinking that the prospect of school meals later in the year was any substitute for feeding children during the lockdown.

In short, the government suspended a massive feeding scheme (the biggest such scheme in Africa), appears to have had no plan, and appears to have failed to take advantage of the opportunity to reallocate some of the budget for emergency feeding.

The Department of Basic Education’s school feeding programme was not the only feeding programme to be suspended during the lockdown. Until 1 April, the Department of Social Development financed a countrywide network of 235 Community Nutrition and Development Centres (CNDCs) that provided cooked meals for poor people. Most or even all CNDCs were closed for the first part of the lockdown, so these cooked meal schemes were suspended. Under a pre-lockdown agreement, these CNDCs were transferred to provincial control on 1 April. Some of the CNDCs resumed feeding operations, with a mix of funds (as we shall see below).

The lockdown also made it difficult for the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) to expand its existing Social Relief of Distress food parcel scheme. This scheme is aimed at people in “such a dire material need that they are unable to meet their families’ most basic needs”. It is a much smaller scheme than the national school feeding scheme, with an annual budget of only just over R400 million (compared to R7 billion for school feeding). It does provide a minimal safety-net of sorts and one might have expected that it would be massively and quickly expanded under lockdown.

Lockdown regulations meant, however, that SASSA’s local offices were closed. By the end of the second month of lockdown SASSA had distributed only 73,000 food parcels nationally – which is about the number that SASSA distributed every two months last year. Unlike the Department of Basic Education, SASSA did not shut down its feeding scheme, but it was unable to expand it in response to the emergency.

Feeding schemes through early childhood development centres were also shut down.

Did the government have any plan when it shut down its feeding schemes under the lockdown? I have not found anyone inside or outside the state who is aware that there was any plan. When the Solidarity Fund – established under the lockdown to raise and allocate donor funding – and non-profit organisations met to discuss emergency feeding schemes, they were under the clear impression that there was no government plan. I have asked government officials if there was any plan. No official has produced any evidence of any plan.

Emergency food parcel programmes have not filled the gap

Government officials apparently promised that one million emergency food parcels would be distributed under the lockdown. Officials have regularly reported on progress towards this target.

The Acting Director-General in the Department of Social Development told the parliamentary portfolio committee on 21 May that “we have increased our numbers from last week from 525,000 food parcels to just over 670,000 food parcels, feeding approximately 2.7 million people”. One of his Deputy Director-Generals, provided an updated figure: “We are distributing food on a daily basis … We are already at 720,000 food parcels.”

On 29 May the Deputy Director-General reported to another meeting of the portfolio committee that a total of 788,000 food parcels had been distributed.

This total of 788,000 food parcels falls short of the target of one million, but it might still sound like a lot. It is, however, small compared to the need. If we assume, conservatively, that the number of households facing “severely inadequate access to food” doubled under the lockdown, then the figures endorsed by the Department of Social Development itself imply a desperate need for nearly 2 million food parcels per month, i.e. five times the total number of food parcels distributed by 29 May. This takes no account of the millions of households facing merely “inadequate access to food”.

Moreover, these food parcels have been a poor substitute for the suspension of the school feeding scheme. The official standard food parcel contains enough for two meals per day for a family of four for one month, i.e. a total of 248 meals. Critics are skeptical that a food parcel stretches anywhere near this far – and many of the distributed parcels have been smaller than the standard package. Even if we generously assume that the average parcel provided for 200 meals, then the total of 788,000 food parcels distributed over nine weeks corresponds to just over 150 million meals.

In fact, as we shall see below, the actual number of food parcels distributed is higher than the total reported by the Department of Social Development. Even taking this into account, however, the volume of food is very much smaller than would have been provided through regular national feeding schemes. Over nine weeks, the suspended NSNP alone would have provided nine million meals per day, or 45 million meals per week, or 400 million meals over nine weeks.

Faced with the national government suspending school meals (as well as meals in early childhood development centres and other schemes), civil society and some provincial and local governments stepped into the gap, through emergency school meals and other hot meal schemes (at least in the Western Cape) as well as food parcels. This made a huge difference for some poor families – but even in the Western Cape it has failed to fill more than a fraction of the gap left by the suspension of national feeding schemes.

In total, emergency food parcels and feeding schemes have provided less than half of the food that would have been provided through school meals and other national schemes had they not been shut down by the national government. They have made only a small contribution to addressing hunger under the lockdown.

National government provided very few of these food parcels

Officials’ claims that the national government has distributed 788,000 food parcels is, moreover, wildly misleading. As the Department of Social Development has acknowledged elsewhere, the total figure of food parcels includes parcels distributed by civil society or provincial and local government.

The Department of Social Development provides apparently precise data. On 29 May, it reported that 73,000 food parcels had been distributed by SASSA, 218,000 food parcels in partnership with the Solidarity Fund and 523,000 by the national Department. The latter figure was then broken down by province: 153,000 in Gauteng, 67,000 in the Western Cape, and so on.

As far as I can tell, the national government has paid for and distributed only 73,000 food parcels through SASSA and co-financed another 55,000 food parcels distributed through the Solidarity Fund. Most of the food parcels for poor people under the lockdown have been financed and distributed by civil society.

Insofar as the state has come to the party, it has been provincial governments and municipalities, not the national government. This is true also of emergency feeding schemes that are not included in the figure of 788,000 food parcels. It has been civil society with provincial and local governments that have tried to fill the gap left by the suspension of national feeding schemes.

Providing precise data is almost impossible. This is in part because getting food to people who need it involves two stages. First, funds need to be raised and food purchased, or donations of food secured. Bulk supplies of food may need to be warehoused and packaged. Second, food needs to be distributed to selected households (through what is sometimes called ‘last mile’ distribution).

These multiple stages mean that it is easy to double-count the distribution of food parcels. First, an institution (or even more than one institution) reports that it has funded and/or purchased food and distributed it to selected neighbourhoods. Then one or other local organisation reports that it has distributed the same parcels to deserving households. Collating data is a nightmare, for researchers and state institutions alike.

So, who had delivered how much food?

Let us start with the Solidarity Fund, established under the lockdown. Donations to the Fund have passed R2.5 billion (as of 28 May), including initial seed money of R150&nsp;million from government. Just over half of this had been disbursed. Most of the Fund’s expenditure has been on medical supplies and activities, with smaller sums allocated to emergency feeding.

In mid-April, it committed R120 million for food parcels for poor households, using existing civil society organisations. One half of this budget was allocated to four large non-profit organisations (NPOs): Food Forward, Afrika Tikkun, Islamic Relief and the Lunchbox Fund.

These NPOs bought food in bulk and delivered it to their networks of more than four hundred local organisations to distribute to poor households. One quarter of the Solidarity Fund’s food parcel budget was allocated to the CNDCs for households that would usually benefit from cooked meal provision. The national Department of Social Development itself more-or-less matched the Solidarity Fund contribution, putting in an additional R20 million. The final quarter of the Solidarity Fund’s food parcel budget was allocated to community- and faith-based organisations at provincial and local levels, especially in rural areas; the Solidarity Fund worked with two logistics companies to source, pack and deliver food to the local organisations.

Through these channels the Solidarity Fund ensured a total of 280,000 food parcels between 15 April and 22 May – somewhat more than the Department of Social Development reported on 29 May. More than 154,000 parcels were distributed through the four big NPOs, including 86,500 through FoodForward alone. Just under 60,000 were distributed through the CNDCs (using the combined Solidarity Fund and Department of Social Development funding). Slightly more – 66,000 – were distributed through community and faith-based organisations.

The NPOs used other sources of funding to provide additional food. The Lunchbox Foundation, for example, told me that it supplied a total of about 105,000 ‘family food boxes’ between about 20 April and late May, using funds from the eNCA and Hosken Consolidated Investments Foundation as well as the Solidarity Fund.

FoodForward is a food redistribution agency that receives surplus food from retailers (including Pick n Pay and Woolworths) and farmers. It stores food and then redistributes it through approved local organisations. It told me that it has redistributed about R55 million worth of donated food in addition to the food purchased using money from the Solidarity Fund (and other donors). In the first weeks of the lockdown, FoodForward distributed large volumes of food. In the second half of April, it concentrated on distributing the food parcels paid for by the Solidarity Fund. In May, it reports, it has redistributed sufficient donated food for at least a further 120,000 food parcels.

All over the country, local NGOs – some existing, some new – distributed food, sometimes with funds from provincial or local government, sometimes with funds or food from the large NPOs (including the Solidarity Fund) or funds they had raised themselves.

Gift of the Givers provided 70,000 food parcels and funded one hundred feeding centres.

In Cape Town, the Peninsula School Feeding Association had distributed over 9,000 parcels by 8 April and was expecting to distribute another 4,000 over the following week.

Also in Cape Town, volunteers for Ladles of Love operated out of the International Convention Centre, distributing 25,000 homemade sandwiches daily and preparing soup and other food to be distributed to school children. The Convention Centre also served as a depot for food for community initiatives across the city.

A group in Delft called Women for Action, for example, provided meals to about 200 people every day.

In Alexandra (Johannesburg), volunteers for Londani Lushaka (‘Caring for the Nation’) prepared and served up hot lunches to children, who brought containers with them. The food was donated by companies. A moving report by Mark Heywood drew attention to their need for larger pots so that they could cook more food for more poor children.

Faced with the failure of the national government and the huge need, civil society has quickly mobilised resources and set up unprecedented food distribution across the country. Even if these efforts have not been sufficient, they should be applauded loudly.

The Western Cape

A fuller picture of emergency food provision is available for the Western Cape. The number of food parcels and meals provided in the province is significantly higher than the total reported by the national Department of Social Development. But only a small fraction of this total was funded by national government.

About 140,000 food parcels had been distributed in the province by late May. The provincial government itself funded about 42,000 food parcels, making steady progress towards its goal of 50,000. Most of these were distributed through NPOs (Mustadifin, Red Cross, Islamic Relief and the South African National Zakat Fund or SANZAF) with about 10,000 distributed through local CNDCs.

It is unclear precisely how many food parcels have been distributed through municipal schemes but the number is probably in the thousands, not tens of thousands.

SASSA has distributed 11,000 Social Relief of Distress food parcels. (When the Department of Social Development and SASSA reported to the parliamentary portfolio committee on 23 April, they appeared to show that they had rejected almost all applications for Social Relief of Distress food parcels in the Western Cape).

Early in the lockdown the Western Cape provincial government announced that it had allocated an additional R30 million for food parcels, R23 million for cooked meal schemes and R16 million to support municipal initiatives. Municipalities contributed additional funding of their own: The City of Cape Town apparently contributed R12 million and other municipalities in the province contributed another R7 million. In total, therefore, the province and municipality seemed to have committed about R88 million for emergency feeding, dwarfing the modest sums spent by national government in the province.

The other 80,000 food parcels distributed in the province have been funded and distributed by civil society actors, including more than 30,000 through the Solidarity Fund. Even if we credit the Department of Social Development with co-funding some food parcels with the Solidarity Fund, it seems that national government has funded less than 20,000 out of the 140,000 parcels distributed.

The provincial government also tried to fill the gap left by the suspension of school feeding. It allocated R18 million to the provincial Department of Education for an emergency school feeding program in approximately 1,000 schools, providing takeaway meals twice per week for children who had previously been fed daily through the now suspended NSNP.

Between early April and 12 May, this emergency schoolchildren feeding programme provided more than 1.2 million meals. The number appears to have grown further in the second half of May.

The provincial government also allocated an additional R5 million for 10,000 cooked meals per day for one month, for people other than children, through a network of about 72 soup kitchens operated by NGOs as well as about twenty CNDCs.

The provincial Department of Social Development also reactivated feeding schemes at about two-thirds of the 1,100 Early Childhood Development centres funded by the department, feeding up to 80,000 children per day. It seems that on some days the provincial administration had funded civil society organisations to provide as many as 200,000 cooked meals.

These figures suggest that the national Department of Social Development under-reported the actual distribution of food parcels in the Western Cape by perhaps one-third. I have tried to find out from the national department how it arrived at the figures it reported to parliament. A senior official tells me that the provinces send in data regularly (daily even), although there is a lag of about one week. When I queried this with the provincial department, an official wondered whether counterparts in the national department were using data on the province’s original target – which had been surpassed – rather than data on actual distribution. This does not inspire confidence in the national Department of Social Development.


Unlike the Western Cape provincial government, the Gauteng provincial government sought to coordinate centrally the distribution of food parcels by requiring that donations are routed through government-run food banks.

The premier claimed on 14 April that ‘we’ were distributing food parcels to 2,000 households per day – a total of 72,000 ‘people’ (i.e. households) to date. At that time, parcels were being distributed to poor households on the provincial Department of Social Development’s existing database. Three days later the figure of households that had received food parcels had risen to 80,000 and a week after this the provincial department said that it had distributed 120,000 parcels (by 20 April), with a target of 5,000 families per day.

This was reportedly funded primarily (R80 million) by provincial funds. Businesses had also donated food. Shell South Africa for example publicised intensively its donation of 10,000 food parcels.

On 21 May, the premier announced that 136,000 households had received food parcels. Only 11,000 of these were parcels funded through the national Social Relief of Distress programme. Municipalities also reported that they were distributing food parcels, although perhaps these parcels were being counted twice. The Mayor of Ekurhuleni (the East Rand) said that the municipality had distributed 18,000 parcels donated by private businesses, through NGOs, churches and other civil society organisations.

I cannot ascertain precisely what is included in the figure reported by the provincial government. Does it include the Solidarity Fund’s tally of 56,000 food parcels in Gauteng (as of 26 May)? It seems that not all food parcels are routed through the provincial depots. SASSA food parcels seem to be exempt from this. FoodForward tells me that it distributes direct to local organisations, in Gauteng as in other provinces. Precisely what the data mean remains opaque.

What is clear is that most emergency food distribution in Gauteng, as in the Western Cape, has been organised by civil society or the provincial government, not national government. Also, in Gauteng as elsewhere, the total volume of emergency food distributed remains much less than the volume of school meals suspended when schools were closed.

National government’s desire to control

Under lockdown it has become clear that the national government has commandist instincts: The name of the ‘National (Coronavirus) Command Council’, Minister of Police Cele’s militaristic instructions to the police to criminalise minor infringements of lockdown regulations, Minister of Trade and Industry Patel’s micro-regulation of business and ‘Disaster’ Minister Dlamini-Zuma’s obsession with smoking are mirrored in the Minister of Social Development’s attempts to control the distribution of food.

The Minister and her officials prefer to speak of ‘coordination’ rather than control, but their draft regulations (dated 7 May) revealed executive overreach. Citing long queues of people when food parcels were distributed – perhaps with the recent case of Olievenhoutbosch (near Pretoria) in mind – the government proposed that NPOs and local civil society organisations must apply for permits from the Department of Social Development before they can distribute food parcels. Applications for permits would need to show precisely what would be distributed (i.e. the contents of each parcel), when and where. These details would also need to be provided to the police. Organisations would have to collect personal details from every recipient and report these to the national department. Parcels must be delivered to recipients’ homes. The draft regulations explicitly prohibited cooked meals.

Several provincial governments appear to have issued these regulations and tried to enforce them. In Gauteng, the provincial government reportedly tried to shut down a charitable organization providing peanut butter sandwiches to poor communities. Media have reported that one or other part of the state had closed down soup kitchens, allowed donated food to sit in storage unused, and generally tied up feeding operations in red tape. Newspapers continued to bemoan bureaucratic obstructionism. As Business Day wrote:

“There is food, and there are organisations willing and able to distribute it, but an obstructive government is tying people’s hands. Soup kitchens have been told they can’t serve hot food because of the lockdown regulations; when they make sandwiches, they’re told they need permits – and that they have to deliver the sandwiches. Food parcels have languished at distribution points because they don’t meet the SASSA ‘quantity requirements’. It’s not just government’s determination to centralise control that is so infuriating; it’s the fact that it seems unable to ensure efficient delivery in the areas where it exercises that control.”

The regulations promoted strong protests from the government of the Western Cape. The Western Cape government later explained that the proposal to issue permits “would be virtually impossible to implement, since there are tens of thousands of organisations and private individuals in neighbourhoods in every province of this country, and provincial departments do not have the capacity to issue permits to every one of these organisations and individuals, or to coordinate them as contemplated in the draft directives”.

The proposal was likely to lead to delays in food distribution. The provincial government also worried that the police would “take a hard line against individuals without permits, as they have done so thus far with people perceived to be in violation of exercising regulations, cigarette bans, and curfews” – which would distract the police from the most important task of managing crowds.

The South African Human Rights Commission declared that the draft regulations violated the national constitution.

Faced with widespread protests and legal action, the national Minister and her provincial counterpart in Gauteng appear to have backed away from confrontation.

The Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, denies that the government tried to stop civil society from delivering food. But she has repeatedly drawn attention to the problems of ‘selfish’ people who take multiple parcels or sell the food they have been given and the generally chaotic and uncoordinated distribution of parcels. Both the Minister and her Acting Director-General emphasise that a “developmental approach” was needed, invoking the ANC’s long-standing anxiety about “handouts” to poor people.


It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the national government had no plan, shut down its massive school feeding programme and impeded its regular food parcel scheme, has failed to provide much funding for food parcels and has played almost no part in delivering them to poor people.

Any such conclusion is, of course, politically very sensitive. When the President of the Medical Research Council, Glenda Gray, expressed her concern that child malnutrition was worsening under the lockdown, she was fiercely rebuked by the Minister of Health. Whether or not more cases of child malnutrition are appearing at hospitals, it is very likely that child malnutrition is indeed worsening around the country.

The national government might point to the cash that it has transferred to poor households through the expansion of social grants. At the beginning of May – in the sixth week of lockdown – SASSA did indeed pay out close to R5 billion in supplements to its usual grants. This dwarfs the total value of food parcels delivered countrywide: One million food parcels are worth approximately R1 billion. But SASSA has failed spectacularly to deliver the promised emergency Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant to adults with no other source of income.

Food parcels have been needed urgently under the lockdown by households with no other income, by households that needed to supplement existing grants, by households that were waiting for grant payments and by households that relied in part on school meals provided to children. The national government has failed these many households.

Jeremy Seekings is a professor and Director of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town.

This article was originally published by GroundUp.

For licensing information please visit the source website.