Author/s: Katharine Hall & Winnie SambuDate: February 2022
This indicator shows the number and percentage of children living in households where children are reported to go hungry “sometimes”, “often” or “always” because there wasn’t enough food.
Section 28(1) (c) of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution gives every child the right to basic nutrition. The fulfilment of this right depends on children's access to sufficient food. There are a number of ways in which access to food can be monitored. At a global level, the Food and Agricultural Association (FAO) regularly publishes estimates of the prevalence of undernourishment, which is defined as the percentage of a population without access to sufficient dietary energy needed for an active and healthy life.1
South Africa’s average undernourishment rate for the 2016 – 2018 period was calculated at 6%, an increase from an average of 4.4% that was reported for the 2002 – 2004 period. The relatively low rate of undernourishment in South Africa, compared to other countries in the region which have undernourishment rates above 20% (Botswana, Namibia and Eswatini), suggests that there is enough food to cater for the majority of the country’s population. However, distribution and accessibility constraints, coupled with high rates of poverty and inequality, mean that a substantial proportion of the country’s population is food insecure.
At the household level, one of the main indicators used to monitor food insecurity is reported hunger. Child hunger is emotive and subjective, and this is likely to undermine the reliability of estimates on the extent and frequency of reported hunger, but it is assumed that variation and reporting error will be reasonably consistent so that it is possible to monitor trends from year to year.
In 2020, 10% of children (2.1 million) lived in households that reported child hunger. More than a fifth of these children (22%) are from KwaZulu-Natal, while 19% are from Gauteng. Child hunger rates in 2020 were 20 percentage points lower than they were in 2002 when 30% of children (5.5 million) lived in households that reported child hunger. The largest declines have been in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. One of the main contributors to this decline is the expansion of the Child Support Grant which in 2020 covered 13 million children.2 Another is the National School Nutrition Programme, which by 2020 reached around 9.7 million learners in approximately 20,000 schools3 (though only during term-time and excluding children who are too young to attend school. The NSNP was suspended during lockdown, until a High Court ruling compelled the Department of Basic Education to resume the feeding programme irrespective of whether schools were open).
Analysis of child hunger rates within provinces shows that child hunger rates are highest in the North West and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, affecting 19% and 18% of children living there respectively. The lowest hunger rates are in Limpopo and Eastern Cape provinces (3% and 5% respectively). Despite high poverty rates, Limpopo has always reported child hunger rates below the national average, perhaps because of its highly fertile and productive land in rural areas where most of the population lives. However, there is no clear explanation for the dramatic decline in reported hunger in the Eastern Cape. Over the period from 2002 – 2018, reported child hunger rates in that province fell from 48% (higher than any other province) to 5% (the second lowest). This is despite the fact that the Eastern Cape has the highest poverty rates in the country, with 48% of children living below the food poverty line.
There are no differences in reported child hunger across gender or age groups. However, there are significant differences across race; 12% of African children live in households that reported child hunger, compared to 7% of Coloured children and less than 1% of Indian and White children. Differences are even more pronounced across income quintiles. While 18% of children living in the poorest 20% of households experienced hunger, only one percent of children in quintile 5 (the richest 20%) lived in households that reported child hunger.
Children who suffer from hunger are at risk of various forms of malnutrition, including wasting, stunting, overweight and micronutrient deficiencies. It must be recognised that child hunger is a subjective indicator and does not capture other important aspects of food security such as dietary diversity and consumption of nutrient-dense foods, both of which are important for children’s healthy growth especially in early childhood. Children may live in households that do not report hunger but may still not have access to sufficient nutritious food and are therefore at risk of malnutrition. In 2018, approximately 30% of children who lived in households that did not report child hunger were classified as living below the food poverty line, an indicator that their households lacked the financial resources needed to meet minimum dietary requirements for children and other household members.4
1 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP & WHO (2019) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns. Rome: FAO.
2 Hall K (2021) Income poverty and grants – Child Support Grants. Children Count website, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town. Accessed on 1 February 2022: www.childrencount.uct.ac.za.
3 Government Gazette No. 41704, 16 June 2018;
National Treasury (2019) Estimates of National Expenditure, Vote 14 Basic Education. Pretoria: National Treasury.
4 Statistics South Africa (2021) General Household Survey 2020. Pretoria: Stats SA. Analysis Winnie Sambu.
The ‘hunger’ question in the General Household Survey provides notoriously weak data. Child hunger is emotive, subjective and estimates of frequency unreliable – particularly since the presence and frequency of ‘child hunger’ is reported by one adult in the household. It is assumed, however, that reporting error will be similar in each year of data collection, so that it is possible to report trends even if proportions for a single year are questionable. For this indicator the 5-point scale is collapsed into a dichotomous (yes/no) variable.