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In Peddie in the Eastern Cape, children are eating wild plants to survive, as the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown take their toll. The number of households going hungry has doubled, according to new research.

Gift of the Givers project manager Ali Sablay told Groundup that when the organisation’s food truck arrived in Wesley, Peddie, last week, people started dancing and singing. Until then, only 25 food parcels had been handed out in the area since the beginning of the lockdown, Sablay said. He said some people in Peddie were eating wild plants to deal with their gnawing hunger pangs.

One woman had told him, “My children will tell you the taste of every plant in this area, as for the last three months I have been feeding them these plants.”

Researchers in the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) released on Wednesday, found that 47% of respondents reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020. Before the lockdown, 21% of households reported that they ran out of money to buy food in the previous year. 

The NIDS survey has followed 28,000 individuals in 7,300 households over time, starting in 2008, and reporting on their livelihoods and wellbeing. The NIDS-CRAM survey, the first of five this year, ran from May 7 to June 27 and used 50 call-centre agents to survey 7,000 respondents. By then social grants had been increased but most households would not yet have been receiving the special Covid-19 grant.

“It is the worst amount of hunger in the 28 years of the Gift of the Givers,” said Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, who founded the organisation in 1992 in South Africa.

Job losses had spread hunger into new areas in cities, Sooliman said. Calls from people in need were coming from people employed in industries in distress, particularly the aviation, restaurant and hotel sectors. 

“The job losses are massive.”

In rural areas, farmers were joining farmworkers in appealing for food, Sooliman said. Foreign nationals in South Africa were also approaching the Gift of the Givers for food aid. “Foreign nationals are completely out of the system. They don’t have ID cards. They can’t get support from anywhere else,” he said.

Sooliman identified the Eastern Cape as a hunger hotspot. 

“The Eastern Cape is a forgotten province.”

He said significant demand for food parcels had kicked in three weeks after the national lockdown started on March 27. By then people had exhausted their last paycheque, or their meagre savings or used up their earnings from social grants.

After that phone calls, emails and social media messages appealing for food aid overwhelmed the Gift of the Givers, Sooliman said. The call for food had been “huge”.

“In our 28-year history, we have never had the call centre so busy. Previously the switchboard operator answered the call centre, but the organisation brought in an extra four people to man the call centre. My staff could not cope—at any one time there were 8,000 emails in my inbox. We had to put in four extra staff to clear the emails. The public floods us with calls asking for help,” he said.

“People cry over the phone.”

Since 27 March, Gift of the Givers has handed out over 100,000 food parcels while funding 100 feeding centres. Each food parcel feeds a family of five for a month and each feeding centre supports between 800 and 1,200 people each day. Gift of the Givers’ food parcels are likely to have reached 500,000 people, and the feeding schemes have reached 100,000 people.

Sooliman estimated that his organisation had spent about R50 million on food parcels and feeding schemes since the start of the national lockdown. The Gift of the Givers has delivered R100 million worth of supplies since 15 March.

Donor-funded organisations were also collapsing as donors ran out of money, Sooliman said. “Many companies have not been operating for over three months, what do you expect?”

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