Food first, education after
The national lockdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic meant that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) was suspended for the first time since its inception in 1994, leaving millions of learners in South Africa without the security of a daily nutritious meal.
It’s a quiet Wednesday morning at Sivelile Primary School, a state primary school in Meadowlands, Soweto, Gauteng province, South Africa. The silence can be attributed to the classes that are still taking place just before lunch, at 11 am.
As I enter the school gates, the security guard asks, “singakusiza ngani sisi?” I explain to him my business at the school and he offers me a seat outside the small wooden shed located just inside the entrance to the school. He goes to confirm my meeting with the school principal.
Once the principal has confirmed my visit, head of department (HOD) at Sivelile, Fezeka Tabata, takes me to one of the grade seven classrooms.
What is a nutritious meal?
It is 11am and learners are about to eat their nutritious meal of the day. The meal consists of soft porridge for breakfast. Lunch is usually a starch, protein, fruit or vegetable. There are various options for starch: maize meal, rice or samp.
Proteins include milk, pilchards, soya and sugar beans. Vegetables are normally cabbage, pumpkin and a fruit, depending on what is in season. The lunch the learners receive depends on the day of the week.
The needs of each province are kept in mind when the decisions on what the learners eat are made. They are then concluded by nutritionists who determine what is nutritious for the learners and what the national food budget is for schools.
The women who cook at the school, and who are also parents to some of the learners, bring large containers of food from the kitchen into one of the grade seven classrooms as they prepare to dish up for the learners.
There is no hall at the school, so all the learners are either dished up for in their respective classrooms, in the corridor or in the kitchen.
On this particular Wednesday, learners are being served rice, canned pilchards and butternut. The rice looks mushy and tastes slightly over–cooked, the canned fish is stewed and has a tangy tomato–like taste, and the boiled butternut has a sweet, natural taste.
The food looks bland at first sight, but it’s true that looks can be deceiving, because for me the food is more flavourful than it appears. I can also tell that these learners are used to the food they are receiving, because of their eagerness to dish up.
“Why are you guys not excited? This is your favourite meal,” remarks Tabata. The reason for the students’ lack of excitement seems to be because of the unfamiliar face in their classroom.
As they are about to pray, one of the learners realises I am about to take a picture and shyly looks away.
The lockdown meant that some of these kids went without the daily nutritious meal they depend on for survival, and this is what it still means for approximately two million learners in the country who are still not receiving the meal. No school means no food.
Court victory for the NSNP
In July, the High Court in Pretoria ordered the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to reinstate the NSNP, after private organisation Equal Education took the department to court.
When this order was made, acting deputy judge and president of the North Gauteng High Court Sulet Potterill, in her ruling in the case of Equal Education and others v. the department of basic education and others, highlighted that the NSNP was “a life-saving programme for the poorest–of the poor child”.
The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is a national project run by the department of basic education (DBE). The programme pre-lockdown fed over 9 million learners a daily nutritious meal at public schools across the country. Sivelile primary is one of over 20 000 public schools in the country who depend on the school feeding scheme.
This programme is labelled by Equal Educations researcher Stacey Jacobs as “one of the more successful programmes run by the (DBE)”.
The schools that are targeted fall under quintile one to three public primary and secondary schools and identified special schools in quintiles four and five. These are the poorest schools in the country.
The purpose of a free daily meal
Through the implementation of the NSNP, the DBE aims at a sustainable provisioning of quality food to learners who are threatened by poverty and hunger. This food is to enhance the learning capacity of children while at school by providing a daily nutritious meal, and to encourage school attendance.
“School feeding can improve the consumption of nutritious food by children, if the menu is well designed (by nutrionists) and especially if both breakfast and lunch are delivered at school,” according to the Food Security SA Working Paper Series: #004.
When children are not receiving these meals, they become susceptible to not just illnesses but being exploited, as well as other social injustices faced by children in South Africa that are heightened when learners aren’t in school.
From the mouth of a beneficiary
“Wow, I didn’t know Wits was this big,” says Lawrence Manaka, a matric learner at JB Matabane Secondary School, as he gets out of his Uber at Wits Art Museum (WAM) from Ivory Park, where his school is situated.
It’s around 3pm on a Thursday afternoon and Manaka is still in his school uniform, a yellow shirt with a blue tie that has the school’s logo, and khaki pants. We walk into WAM and I offer him a seat on the black couches located in what used to be a busy cafeteria with students, lecturers and visitors stopping by during the day, but is now filled with silence.
Manaka, a beneficiary of the programme, wasn’t one of the learners negatively affected by the programme being stopped in higher levels of the lockdown. In as much as he sometimes eats the food from school, it is not a need for him.
The matric learner gives me a little background information about the area he’s from: “I am from Ivory park and it’s a very underprivileged community and there are a lot of learners there who depend solely on the meals that they get from school.
‘’When some of my schoolmates come to school, it’s not just them coming to learn – it’s also them coming to get the meal,’’ says Manaka. ‘‘So, when [the country] went into hard lockdown some of the learners faced a huge problem, because now they couldn’t get access to food.”
Manaka tells me about a friend of his who was hit hard by the school feeding scheme being suspended. “I have a friend who would come to my house, and because I know the situation back home, he would get food from my house or my mum would give him [money].
‘’You could tell he really needed the food to get through the day. His situation was extreme to the point where he considered dropping out of school and looking for work rather than being at home hungry. When we went back to school you could tell it became better, because now he can get at least two meals a day,” says Manaka.
Department backtracks on NSNP
In March, after the country recorded its first cases of covid-19, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced that all schools in the country would be closed, which also meant the NSNP would be suspended. More than nine million learners stopped receiving a daily meal at school because of this.
On May 19, day 54 of the national lockdown, Motshekga, in a media statement, publicly announced that pupils in grades seven and 12 would return to school in June, and that the NSNP would resume for all qualifying pupils at the same time.
The minister did not live up to her word when schools finally resumed on June 8, with grade seven and grade 12 being the only grades to receive the meal, saying the department needed more time.
This prompted Equal Education (EE), together with two Limpopo high schools supported by Equal Education Law Centre and SECTION27, to take the DBE and provincial education departments to court on June 12.
The reason for this was the EE believes that the backtracking of the DBE in providing learners with this meal, after promising otherwise, violates learners’ constitutional rights.
“The failure of the DBE and provincial education departments to roll out the NSNP to all qualifying learners, or even to produce a plan or programme for doing so, is a regressive measure that violates learners’ rights to basic nutrition, basic education and equality,” said Equal Education.
Equal Education wanted the judge to declare that all qualifying learners, regardless of whether or not they have resumed classes, must receive a daily meal.
“South Africans are at high risk of micronutrient deficiency, specifically Vitamin A and iron. Lack of Vitamin A impairs the immune system, while lack of iron leads to anaemia, fatigue and dizziness. Hunger and micronutrient deficits are known to impact negatively on school attendance, cognitive capacity and immunity to disease,” says Food Security SA. The NSNP aims to avoid these illnesses, and during a time of covid-19 this is more important than ever.
Lehlonolo Magqoki, director of the NSNP for the Gauteng department of education (GDE), in his departmental office at 55 Fox Street, explains that it is not the education department’s responsibility to feed children when they are out of school, and the lockdown facilitated such a time.
“We, as the GDE nutrition directorate, offer meals to learners that are at school from Monday to Friday. So, we never offered meals during lockdown level five because the grant that comes from national did not allow us to offer meals to learners. We do not offer learners food while they are at home,” says Magqoki.
Child support grant not sufficient
The child support grant (CSG) was ‘topped up’ in May, from R440 to R740, during the lockdown. This has proved to be insufficient because “for millions of households across the country food security was gravely compromised due to the covid-19-necessitated lockdown,” said Equal Education in a statement.
According to evidence from the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS)- Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) Wave 1, the Stats SA food poverty line per person is approximately R578 a month, and the CSG would not have covered this amount before the top–up.
The survey, focusing mainly on that one-third of households fully dependent on grants and calculating the grant income they would qualify for, found that 87% of children would have been in poverty before the top ups were introduced.
“The top-ups were indeed much larger than the loss of school meals, but the lockdown took away the certainty of a nutritious meal a day on school days,” NIDS-CRAM wave 1.
Not all learners at JB Matabane secondary school qualify for the CSG. Lawrence Makana who is also a learner member Equal Education says “not all learners are South African citizens some of these learners are at school using permits, meaning they are foreigners. This means they don’t qualify for the social grant.”
The NIDS-CRAM in its recommendation for school meals, recommends that school feeding be extended to provide meals for the weekend during the pandemic. This provision would allow learners to eat during weekends or public holidays when the feeding scheme does not operate.
This is not something the department has not considered. “The only challenge [the DBE] has, and it’s been spoken about for [approximately] five years, is that now we are feeding the learners Monday to Friday, and some of these learners are from child–headed families that do not have food on weekends. The department is looking at means of augmenting meals on weekends with the DSD on how we can help, but currently meals end on weekdays,” says Lehlonolo Magqoki, as he eats his breakfast cereal.
According to a court–ordered departmental report, the covid-19 pandemic has prompted the provincial department of Gauteng to change its standard operating procedures in respect of NSNP to prevent and manage the spread of the virus in schools, while providing learners with meals.
FEATURED IMAGE: The suspension of the school nutrition programme in March, left over nine million South African learners deprived of having an opportunity to access food. Photo: Khuleko Siwele