The Sunday Independent
Reaching the ‘missing middle’
Relief for many not covered by government programmes
“COVID-19 has reversed the gains that have been made against malnutrition across the country as it continues to push health and food systems to the limit” and has affected the “missing middle”.
This was the sentiment of the CEO of Operation Hunger, Sandy Bukula, after one of her organisation had visited Katlehong in Ekurhuleni where more than 80 families were provided with food parcels on Thursday.
Bukula said the organisation’s feeding scheme has 43 distribution points in rural areas and in informal settlements, and has so far reached over 2.4 million beneficiaries.
She said that good nutrition is an essential defensive strategy to protect populations against epidemics, relieving the burden on health systems, while delivering on Universal Health Coverage, and ultimately, saving lives.
She said the pandemic exposed the weakness of food and health systems, disproportionately impacting already vulnerable populations.
“Over the past nine months, we have seen an increase in strategic and deliberate action to empower the vulnerable in society as we have over 200 new families entering Operation Hunger’s #FeedFamily efforts.
“The unspoken inequality that has seen the missing middle of Covid-19 reach out for food aid while struggling to find employment is of concern as we live in a cash-dependent society that has little to no access to land that can be leveraged to reduce the need for retail dependency on nutritional input,” said Bukula.
When the lockdown started many of the “missing middle”, who are informal economy workers, were often not covered by any protection programmes.
Government had to scramble to reach them through such measures as the R350 Covid-19 relief grant.
“Many of the missing middle are informal economy workers. As a result, the crisis has brought the needs of informal workers to the fore, making them visible in a way they had not been before,” Bukula said.
When the Sunday Independent visited the beneficiaries, some of them said at first they were “shy” to be seen carrying food parcels because they were used to being independent before the pandemic.
Bukulu said: “This is a concern for Operation Hunger as these new entrants to the unemployed sector are struggling to maintain or regain their dignity and are uncomfortable with receiving food packages for free.
“For this reason, we see ubuntu daily at all our distributions and programmes. Communities and neighbours are coming together to assist those who are, for the first time due to Covid-19, facing the realities of hunger and malnutrition.
“The dignified and localised approach to malnutrition has seen us create an environment where breadwinners refocus their efforts on getting employed while becoming active members of our food gardens and community outreach programmes.”
One such beneficiary is Khosinathi Mlangeni, 25, who said as a young person he felt embarrassed at first to apply for a food parcel, but as time went on, he had no option as he was the breadwinner. “I used to work part-time at a local factory, but now we have been laid off. People used to see me doing my shopping before Covid-19, but now I am a recipient of the R350 grant,” said Mlangeni.
Thandi Khumalo, 60, said the food parcels were assisting her to feed her four children who were unemployed. “These food parcels are helping us a lot. Since the start of the lockdown, we have been relying on them,” said Khumalo.
Bukula said since the start of the pandemic, the non-profit organisation has seen an increase in its beneficiaries from the 150 – 200 calls per week to about 500.
“For this reason, we take at least 450 – 500 calls per week where we focus on understanding the needs of the home so each food package is able to provide nutritional meals for up to three weeks. In these three weeks, we see breadwinners refocus on re-establishing their independence. Many of our beneficiaries progress from requiring immediate aid.”
Bukula said Operation Hunger has continued to help over 2.4 million South Africans annually while working to include the missing middle of Covid-19.
These new entrants to Operation Hunger’s nutritional efforts demonstrate the will to work and earn for the food packages while seeking guidance on how they can benefit from government aid.