School nutrition programme: Covid’s devastating impact

South Africa’s children have spoken about their experiences with government’s school nutrition programme.

A study by the University of Johannesburg, Centre for Social Development in Africa and Food Evolution Revolution Research Laboratory (FERL) revealed children’s insights about the school nutrition programme.

The study was conducted in schools that served breakfast and lunch as part of the programme in Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the North-West.

ALSO READ: Covid-19 may have been a major setback for the education system in 2020

The Covid effect

The findings showed the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which wreaked havoc on children whose nourishment was wholly dependent on the feeding scheme.

“Evidence demonstrates that during the initial lockdown period in April 2020, 47% of households ran out of money to buy food, and 15% of households reported child hunger.”

While the courts mandated schools to continue providing meals even during school closures, the realities of delivering the food with strict health and safety protocols placed additional burdens on volunteer food handlers.

Many schools also struggled to source the required foods resulting in children receiving diminished access to meals or food with fewer nutrients.

ALSO READ: Govt vows school nutrition programme will carry on during lockdown

The children speak

The study aimed to hear directly from the recipients of the school nutrition programme.

“To capture children’s voices, we employed a child-centred qualitative approach incorporating participatory visual methods deemed suitable for and sensitive to data collection with children.

“Two focus groups were conducted within each school with children aged 10-12 years,” said Dr Hema Kesa, FERL Director, University of Johannesburg.

Across all the schools, it was clear that children appreciated the food they received through the programme.

“I think if we didn’t get food here at school, we wouldn’t be healthy because other people at home survive on cabbage. Here at school, they help us by giving us other food. You can’t survive on cabbage every day. I don’t think there’s anyone who would enjoy living on cabbage,” reports a child from KZN.

“Because the school food gives you more energy to work during the day, and it’s very tasty. It builds your immune system to function,” said a child from the Western Cape.

ALSO READ: Volunteers and organisations aid school nutrition programme

Post Covid difficulties

Children surveyed in the research reported declining food quantity and quality once they returned to school.

“Now that we are all coming to school, the food is becoming less again. It’s just one spoon. The food that we get is so little. We don’t even get full,” said a child from KZN.

Children from the Western Cape reported less variety in their meals, notably the absence of fish, vegetables and maize meal. They also picked up on the sharp decline in the quality of meals they were eating at school.

“The sorghum porridge has lumps. So, when you try to eat it, there is raw sorghum inside. That’s why we don’t like it,” said a child from North West.

ALSO READ: Concern as pupils don’t pitch for their meals at North West schools

KZN nutrition scandal

Authors of the study said their research did not extend to the KZN school nutrition scandal because it occurred after the research period.

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is investigating the R2.4  billion scandal that rocked the province’s school nutrition programme in February.

The tender scandal led to millions of pupils going without breakfast and lunch because the company that won the tender failed to deliver food or provided the schools with rotten groceries.

Basic Education’s Deputy Director-General for Sector Care and Support Services, Dr Granville Whittles described the scandal as a “comedy of errors”.

“They (KZN) clearly made a number of mistakes in allocating that particular tender. A service provider who wasn’t experienced in the programme, they didn’t specify how to deliver, so it’s a comedy of errors really,” said Whittle.

“We [DBE] intervened fairly early on, and ultimately the province decided to terminate the programme. It doesn’t address the fundamentals of the difficulties in that province.”

KZN, as the largest province, gets the lion’s share of the DBE’s school nutrition programme allocation, over R2 billion a year.

NOW READ: KZN schools suffer without funding

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