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Between free meals and hunger for learning

By Iyabo Lawal and Ujunwa Atueyi
05 July 2018   |   4:28 am
For the umpteenth time, the rumbling in her stomach did not go unnoticed by her classmates. Ashamed, she hid her face on her rickety desk and burst into tears.

A cross section of students during their feeding time

Two years after the federal government launched the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL and UJUNWA ATUEYI examine how the project executed across 22 states in Nigeria has fared in terms of school enrolment and impact on basic learning.

For the umpteenth time, the rumbling in her stomach did not go unnoticed by her classmates. Ashamed, she hid her face on her rickety desk and burst into tears. Her classmates, rather amused by her rumbling stomach, let out a laugh as they ate. It was breaktime but six-year-old Amirah Lawal had no food to eat. For weeks, she had endured going to school without a breakfast. The following day, the young girl was not willing to go to school. She begged to go to the farm with her mother, who is saddled with the responsibility of caring for five children –young Amirah is the first child. It would take two years – in June 2016 – for her to return to school.

It is often said, “Hunger doesn’t ravage the stomach leaving room for other concerns.” Little wonder then that the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP)– part of a N500 billion funded Social Investment Programme designed by the government to tackle poverty and improve the health and education of children and other vulnerable groups – was put in place. The programme aims to feed over 24 million schoolchildren, which will make it the largest school feeding programme of its kind in Africa.

Launching the programme, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had said, “Today, we lay an important building block in securing our future by mapping out the implementation plan to ensure that even the most disadvantaged children are free from malnutrition.”

Nigeria has one of the highest burdens of childhood malnutrition. In fact, malnutrition disorders affect more than 42 per cent of schoolchildren in the country and are responsible for 49 per cent absenteeism of primary school age children. The United Nations’ agency, UNICEF, estimates that 2.5 million Nigerian children under the age of five suffer from severe malnutrition each year, with about half a million children dying from it. This is the principal reason the President Muhammadu Buhari administration launched in June 2016 the NHGSFP in which pupils have one free meal a day.

No doubt the administration must have taken a cue from Thailand. Between 1982 and 1986, the Asian nation put in place a nutrition policy that linked malnutrition to poverty alleviation and rural development and incorporated the primary health care approach, with greater emphasis on community participation. Included in this policy was the provision of subsidies for school lunch in rural primary schools. As a result, it has reduced its poverty rates from 27 per cent in 1990 to 9.8 percent in 2002 and the proportion of underweight children in Thailand also fell by nearly half in the same period.

Osinbajo argued a similar transformation is happening in Nigeria when he stated: “I am amazed at the level this wonderful programme has attained. This is a major success recorded. The programme provides a social safety net that improves the health and education of the poorest and most vulnerable children. NHSGSP is among our efforts to combat poverty. It is anchored on ensuring nutrition for our children. It is our attempt to reach the family unit in very real times. It is currently operating in 22 states in Nigeria with 7,487, 441 pupils as beneficiaries.”

Speaking on the programme, which was first initiated in 2004 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Prof. Peter Okebukola, erstwhile Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), admitted that it is a good thing that the incumbent administration re-introduced the programme. He explained that there are three major ways the programme will make impact: it will boost access to basic education, especially among vulnerable groups such as girls, enhance participation, retention and achievement, and promote the health of schoolchildren.

Okebukola further said: “When we measured progress on these indicators in 2005-2006, we recorded noteworthy gains in terms of enrolment of pupils in at least five states. Again, retention of knowledge spiked. In the states we studied, there was at least 28 per cent boost in access, and retention increased by 53 per cent. Pupils from poor families rushed to school to eat free mid-day meals which in many cases were the most nutritious they would eat in a day.”

Like him, other experts pointed out that the government can only make the success recorded so far sustainable by paying attention to its funding and implementation.

However, Loggle Iyalomhe, the Edo State Chairman, Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), did not think providing one meal per day for pupils is the most important thing.

Iyalomhe said: “To me, it is not a priority. There are better things to do for our schools than the feeding programme. A child comes to school and after feeding; he has no chair to sit on or materials to write on. So, what is the use of the feeding when the schools lack basic facilities? I do not think that there are many children who will not eat before going to school. So, what is the use of the programme to a child without a uniform, no seat, books or good classrooms? When the school is attractive and has facilities for learning, the children will be encouraged to enrol. It is not only by feeding them. The feeding programme is a misplaced priority.”

Last year, Obasanjo had also faulted Buhari’s administration’s handling of school feeding programme.
“Any programme that will enhance food intake, particularly of the youth, and will help them in their growth, vitality, and in giving them better nutrition, I would regard as a good programme. (When I was the President) I encouraged it. It is not supposed to be a Federal Government programme. If I remember correctly, I think Nasarawa State had a similar programme, which was good; Kano State had one, which was good. I think one of the states in the Southwest also had one. But it was not a federal programme. It’s not a Federal Government programme; it shouldn’t be.”

Across the states there have been different reports on the success or otherwise of the scheme. While some states admitted that the NHGSFP has indeed increased school enrolment and reduced absenteeism, others were of the view that the scheme has done little or nothing to boost primary education.

For example, the Ogun State Commissioner for Special Duties, Adeleke Adewolu, claimed that the state has recorded a remarkable increase in the enrolment of pupils into the public primary schools since the programme began in the state.

Adewolu explained that the increase in enrolment was noticeable in Primary one to three, saying, “Barely 15 months after the commencement of the school feeding programme in Ogun State, we have already noticed an increase in enrolment of pupils in our primary schools. This is due largely to the movement of pupils from private to public schools so as to enable them benefit from the free school meals, while we have also witnessed improved pupil retention in our schools.”

The report from Oyo State with a total of 2,409 primary schools and 383,653 pupils is cheery. Aderonke Makanjuola, the Chairman of Oyo State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), said the initiative had resulted in more enrolment of pupils in public primary schools.

“The feeding programme has been impactful in Oyo State. I could remember when we had the opportunity to commence the programme early January 2017, three months after, pupils enrolment increased. As we are advancing in the programme, pupil’s enrolment kept increasing all over the state’s primary schools,” Makanjuola said.

In Owerri, the Imo State Commissioner for Education, Gertrude Oduka, made similar assertion when he said: “This wonderful initiative raised the consciousness of parents in the state and I tell you that the era of sending children to trade on the streets is gone. In the state, at least 43,800 pupils in 720 primary schools are enjoying a meal per day.

Even though there are claims that enrolment has drastically increased, Christogonus Nweke, an official of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Ebonyi State Universal Basic Education Board, said only 57 per cent of school-age children have access to basic education.

“The UNICEF in collaboration with the Ebonyi State Universal Basic Education Board in 2017 inaugurated a 50-member committee comprising community leaders, youth leaders and women mobilisers to sensitise and enlighten parents on the need to enrol their children and wards into schools in early stage of life. It is regrettable that Ebonyi is the only one among the five South-East states that still talks about poor school enrolment in the zone as thousands of children of school-age are not enrolled,” Nweke pointed out.

In Anambra State, reports indicated that there was 18.3 per cent increase in enrolment. About 123,000 pupils – from Primary one to three – at various public schools in the state are said to be enjoying the federal government-sponsored free meal a day.

In Kwara State, no fewer than 1,536 primary schools with a total enrolment of 201,956 pupils are said to be having great time learning courtesy of the school feeding programme.

With the number of public primary schools in Ekiti State rising from 711 in 2014 to 810 in 2017, enrolment of school-age children is evidently on the rise – in 2014, there were 378,000 pupils and by 2017 that figure had increased to 463,863. The Deputy Governor of Ekiti State, Kolapo Olusola-Eleka said, “The feedback revealed the potential of the programme to improve the nutrition status of the pupils, increase school enrolment and attendance, energise the local economy and empower certain segments of the population. Above all, we also noted that it is in tandem with our stomach infrastructure policy. We have decided to set political differences aside and partner the federal government for the benefit of our pupils.”

From the foregoing, it is apparent that children who suffer most from hunger are able to attend school and learn while there, because of access to adequate food, further pushing for the achievement of SDG 2 targeted at zero hunger and SDG 10 targeted at reduced inequalities.

But amidst claims of boosting enrolment, the scheme is still bedeviled by several challenges, top of which is the inability of food vendors to offer regular services. For instance, at the Local Government Nursery and Primary School, Jaguna, Itori, Ewekoro community, Ogun State, a source from the school said only pupils in kindergarten, pre-primary and primary one to three are eligible to partook in the free meal programme, which is served once a day, around 11am Mondays to Fridays.
Pupils in primary four to six, the source revealed are shut out of the exercise, which commenced in September 2016/2017 academic session.
Though the source affirmed that the programme has increased the school’s enrolment, there are still lapses on the part of government in keeping to the terms and conditions of the project.
According to him, “There are gaps on the part of government/and or project implementers. They are not regular with the feeding schedule.
There were periods the food vendors don’t turn up. For instance, this term, they did not come to our school until the third week of resumption, when we call them, they said government is yet to respond to them and so they won’t come.”
On the type of meal served, the source said rice and beans are served on Mondays; beans on Tuesdays; rice on Wednesdays; yam porridge or eba/soup on Thursdays; while Fridays are for moi-moi and pap. “Most times, the meals are served with fish or meat. Our pupils look forward to each meal. I want to appeal to government or project facilitators to include those in primary four to six so that their joy will be full.”

In Ondo state, it was learnt that after the usual pomp which heralded the official launch of the scheme on May 3, the about 1,000 vendors engaged by the Federal Government has since stopped cooking for the 78,944 beneficiaries. 

Aside the stoppage, concerned sources lamented the poor, unhygienic and malnourished state of the food served the pupils.

According to them, N70 was budgeted for each of the pupils per meal by the Federal Government but the meal served is not more than N50.

While education experts agreed that there are immediate and long-term benefits of the feeding initiative if sustained and remains well implemented, some feel that the programme has also resulted in inequality and injustice within the communities, especially for those pupils that attend the non-beneficiary schools. Overall, besides boosting the literacy and nutrition status in the country, the school feeding programme is considered an integral part of the long-term development of school-age children and part of the continuum of development support.

In view of this, experts and stakeholders urge the federal government to include other schools and communities, calling for a national policy. According to them, in addition to the laid-down guidelines towards implementation, the legislative and executive arm of government should establish an act and include all the 36 states.