A grim picture of how Nelson Mandela Bay is losing the war against hunger and malnutrition has emerged with the death through starvation of 20 children and the admission to hospital of more than 140 others in the past 20 months.
Four of the children were brought to the city from other towns but were in such a serious condition that they died in hospital within a day.
Those working in the city’s food relief programmes have described bleak scenarios of poverty-stricken residents assaulting each other over meagre food donations and destitute fathers begging a primary school principal for any leftovers to take to their families.
The principal has told how hungry children, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, say they want to be first in the food line.
Shopkeepers are forced to sell half a cup of flour and loose teabags because people have so little money.
There are only four centres where desperate families can seek food help from the Department of Social Development, but the centres only get R25 000 each a year.
Maureen Botha, the head of primary healthcare for Nelson Mandela Bay, said that between March last year and March this year, 12 children had starved to death in the metro.
This figure was confirmed by Health MEC Dr Pumza Dyantyi when she was questioned in the provincial legislature.
A further eight children have died since then.
Throughout the Eastern Cape, there were 226 child deaths due to severe, acute malnutrition and more than 2 000 hospital admissions between March last year and March this year.
The Department of Health does not keep records of malnutrition among adults.
Botha said according to the Bay’s records, of the first 12 children who died from starvation, eight had starved to death in the Bay while four had died in Dora Nginza Hospital after they were referred from Humansdorp, Willowmore and Kirkwood.
“All four [from outside the Bay] died within a day after they were hospitalised,”she said. “They came to us highly unstable, poorly resuscitated. There was not much we could have done for them.
“Our biggest challenge is that moms delay seeking help and patients default on their medication. “We have poor tracing systems. “We need better collaboration with other departments.”
Provincial Social Development spokesman Mzukisi Solani said they were implementing four community nutrition development centres in the metro to assist in the fight against hunger.
For each centre, the department had budgeted R25 000 a year for food.
“We conduct household profiling in each household to assess whether people qualify to be beneficiaries,” he said.
“Other people are also being referred to us by social workers, councillors, local chiefs and NGOs.”
A spokesman for mayor Athol Trollip, Sibongile Dimbaza, said the city did donate to families in dire need.
“However, there are currently not enough discretionary funds available to intervene in mass programmes of goodwill,” Dimbaza said
Janine Barlow, principal of the Normoyle Primary School at the Missionvale Care Centre, said: “When I first arrived at the school, we asked the children what they aspired to be and they said they wanted to be first in the food line.
“It is our priority to let them eat. I want to make sure they can dream big.”
The school has children from Pre-Grade R (three to four years old) to Grade 7.
“Whatever food we have on a day we give to the kids.
“I have seen a great increase in the need for food over the past five years. A lot of parents have lost their jobs.
“I have parents who come to ask if I can send leftover food home with the kids.
“We never had fathers coming to ask for food before. This year the dads came.
“One was on his knees. ‘I beg you, Mrs Barlow,’ he said, ‘if you have half a loaf of bread I can take it to the children. I can’t sleep when my children are hungry’.
“These dads come back and help us at the school. They will do anything to feed their children.
“Confronting hunger like this does something to you. I question myself daily. Did we do enough? Did they get enough?
“I had boys here who told me their mom doesn’t feed them. We gave them bread. I told them to hide the food in their bags. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice.” Ruth Hani runs a soup kitchen from her house in Joe Slovo and also receives weekly grocery parcels from NGO Love Story for struggling families. “People are very hungry,” she said. “They come here and if my food has run out, they will shout at me.”
Hani points to a heap of reusable shopping bags on the tiny stoep of her house.
“I take the food parcels and divide them up in many small bags.
“People here will beat each other up for food. Even their grant money gets taken by the skoppers [loan sharks]. There are no jobs here. People steal food.
“We are struggling. If we see a 2kg [bag] of maize-meal or rice, we laugh with joy.”
Cynthia Grootboom, who runs a soup kitchen in Timothy Valley, said: “We used to give food every week but there are too many people now.
“Now they only get a bag [of food donations] every second week. My heart breaks every time I have to say no.”
Sabrina Lambers, who now manages the Missionvale Care Centre but previously worked in Windvogel, said despite them distributing 700 food parcels a week to the most needy, the need was ever-increasing.
“Every day, we see hungry people. We will always scratch around to at least give them something,” she said.
“The need for food has grown and it will grow more.”
Anita Boucher, who works at Love Story, said: “In the last two years, we have seen an increase in the number of people com- ing to ask for food.
“We don’t see a lot of old people be- cause life on the streets is hard. We see teenagers who were asked to leave home because there was not enough food.
“We see a few young moms with babies.
“Seeing hunger like this changes you. It becomes a constant reminder of how privileged we are.
“People are ashamed to be hungry.”