Today I want to talk a bit about healthy eating in South Africa and the affordability factor – or shall I say, unaffordability factor. When I lived in London, I took for granted how easy it is to enjoy a lifestyle brimming with readily available health food. First world countries like England are so set up for people who want to deviate from the grocery shopping norm, ie at supermarket chains like Sainsburys and Tesco (their equivalent of Pick n Pay and Checkers). I used to do a lot of my healthy food shopping at a chain called Holland & Barrett. Not only do they have stores everywhere, making it easy to pop in on your way home from work, but they also stock a wide range of products at very affordable prices. I used to buy almond butter and quinoa as regularly as I bought milk and bread. Coconut milk was a staple in my fridge, and my pantry was a smorgasbord of superfood powders and pastes.
Since I came back to Cape Town, things have changed dramatically. First off, I had to identify where to get the foods that I had come to depend on. Unlike in the UK, where most supermarket chains have a whole aisle dedicated to ‘free from’ products, I couldn’t find gluten free anything in any of my local shops (luckily that is slowly changing), and superfoods appeared to have as much substance as Casper the Friendly Ghost. I soon discovered Dis-chem and Wellness Warehouse – an absolute lifesaver for me in the beginning - but that discovery came at a cost. My spend on healthy pantry essentials alone in my first month was close to half my rent.
That kind of balance is not sustainable and something had to give – quickly, according to my husband, whose eyes nearly fell out of his head when he saw the receipt. I started looking for alternatives, such as buying natural peanut butter instead of almond, because almond butter is 3-4 times the price of peanut. I continued to buy almond flour and chia seeds – at a cost that made my eyes water - but I used both very sparingly, rationing myself to a certain number of recipes per month so that I could make them last. There are some things that I cut out altogether – quinoa, coconut milk and smoothie superfoods like maca, mesquite and acai. I miss them, particularly quinoa, but they’re so expensive that I feel like I’m eating the food equivalent of diamonds, and that's just absurd in a country where people are going hungry (more on that later).
The sad fact is that normal supermarket food in South Africa is already expensive, and healthy food even more so. With so many people living below the poverty line, niche areas like the health food market are out of reach for the majority of South Africans. The relatively small number of products available means less competition and therefore higher prices. Add to this that many of the products I want to buy are imported and sold at a huge mark up, and you can easily spend an extra R2000 – R3000 on top of your usual grocery budget to stock your healthy food pantry. It’s frustrating, it’s unfair, but it is the reality.
So how do I get around it? I’ve had to manage my expectations since I came back. I can no longer buy everything I want at will. I’ve narrowed my healthy pantry down to a few primary, must-have ingredients, rather than stocking a little bit of everything. I modify recipes so they fit my pantry stock – if I’m missing an ingredient, I substitute and experiment until I find something that works. I have a price cut-off point – I look at the grams vs the cost, and if it goes over the limit that I have agreed with my sensible self, I don’t buy it (I ignore my whining toddler self at this point).
I have a few more tips to share with you around this topic, including a fantastic resource for the some of the cheapest health food products in Cape Town, and an easy to use, budget friendly healthy pantry checklist. Check in again tomorrow for part 2 of this post.