Why feeding in schools is still a limping venture

Pupils of Nakagere Muslim Primary School in Mukono District receive their porriage meal at lunch time recently. Only a few of the pupils can afford posho at lunch time. Photo by Paul Murungi

What you need to know:

Launched in 2013 by then Education minister Jessica Alupo, the school feeding programme is yet to be functional in most schools, especially in rural areas.

Ephraim Opio, is a father of four at Pajimo Army Primary School in Kitgum District. Pajimo Army Primary School’s feeding programme requires every parent to provide 15kgs of maize and 10kgs of beans for their child. But Opio argues that whereas he fully supports the programme, it is expensive to supply a school with food for four children. For instance, he needs at least 60 kilogrammes of maize for his four children in addition to feeding the same children back home. He says he would rather they have porridge at school.
The fight against feeding in school, especially in most public schools, is far from over. This writer randomly visited a few public and privately-owned primary schools to get a feel of what transpires at lunch time. It remains a mixed situation, with some schools providing lunch and others not.

Where is the problem?
Rosemary Sseninde, the State minister for Primary Education, says parents are not cooperative in implementing school feeding programmes. She quotes Section 5(2) of the Education Act 2008 which stipulates that parents have a duty of feeding their children at school. The Act also permits schools to charge some money for meals as agreed upon by each respective school management committee and district council.
In fact in Kitgum District the head teacher of Pajimo Army Primary School, George Otira, says parents are yet to comply despite sensitisation but cites lack of money and food.

“This year we intend to make the school feeding programme active. We asked parents to contribute 15kgs of maize and 10kgs of beans for the whole term but agreed that this should be optional for those parents who can afford. We shall kick off with those who can manage though none have showed up so far, making it difficult for us to keep up with the programme,” Otira says.

Emmanuel Lapyem, the secretary of Education in Kitgum District, notes that the issue of feeding is still serious, especially in rural schools.
“Homes and schools are far apart, making it difficult for children to go back home for lunch. But also the poor economic status of some households makes it impossible for some parents to cater for their children’s feeding at school. And the incidences are more severe in May and October,” he explains.
He adds that at least in urban schools, some lunch is provided to pupils at a fee most parents can afford.

Sseninde says, “There are some parents who still think they are too poor to feed their children in schools. The attitude of our people is still a challenge. They have a dependency syndrome where they expect government to provide everything to a school going child.” But she blames this on the laxity of school management committees in implementing government programmes.

Widespread issue
The problem of feeding in schools seems to be wider but also deeper, especially in homes. Uganda in the recent past has faced serious cases of hunger in West Nile, Teso sub-region, Karamoja and Isingiro District. In fact, Karamoja remains worst hit as most primary schools are still depending on the World Food Programme school feeding project to keep pupils in school.
According to Otira, parents of Pajimo Army Primary School, complained last year that they were not able to contribute food to the school due to poor harvests.

Similarly, Elizabeth Nyamahunge, a head teacher at Rukondwa Primary School in Bwijanga Sub-county, Masindi District, has been in a cat and mouse affair with parents over the same issue for the last two years.
“Some children leave their homes even without breakfast. Those who pack sometimes eat their food at break time and have nothing left for lunch. Whenever they go back home, they only eat at supper time. We have tried to talk to parents to contribute money or at least some 10kgs of maize for porridge but they still say they lack money.” She adds: “The government says parents are accountable for school feeding, but parents say they need help from government. Parents have excuses that poor harvests are affecting their ability to support their children with food at school.”

The fight against feeding in school, especially in most public schools, is far from over.

Huge implications
From poor performance, fatigue, malnutrition, absenteeism, dropouts to short term attention span, the effect remains largely negative for a school going but hungry child.
Nyamahunge says afternoon lessons are boring. Some pupils lie on desks with little interest in lessons while others constantly ask teachers to go out of class. There is a lot of escaping from school in the afternoons.
Sseninde says, “Hunger affects a child’s cognitive development. They won’t understand what they are taught if they are hungry. You cannot expect quality results from a school where children are not feeding!”

Efforts made
However, all is not gloom. The school feeding programme launched in 2013 by Jessica Alupo, the then Education minister, has registered success in some districts. In Mukono District for instance, at Nakagere Muslim Primary School, majority pupils are usually served a cup of porridge at lunch time. A few who can afford to pay for solid food are served posho and beans.
Mohammed Kiggundu, the head teacher, says they charge Shs35,000 for porridge and Shs60,000 for a meal of posho and beans per term. He says at least 60 per cent of parents have paid for feeding.
At St Charles Lwanga Primary School, pupils are served a cup of porridge at lunch time and the money is deducted from PTA contributions.

In Karamoja sub-region, the World Food Programme school feeding project has made strides in keeping most children in school. However, Sseninde expresses worry that the project may at one time come to an end. But not to be caught off-guard, she says, the government is trying to implement the Feed Karamoja project initiative.
She also says after setting up a school feeding management committee in 2017 at the ministry, the committee intensified its efforts towards school feeding through partnerships with development partners and distributing circulars to all districts and schools on school feeding guidelines.

Ray of hope
In south western Uganda, a dairy project; The Inclusive Diary Enterprise (TIDE) started in 2015 by SNV, a non-governmental organisation from the Netherlands is making strides in more than 77 schools in the districts of Kiruhura, Mbarara, Sheema, Isingiro, Bushenyi and Ntugamo. Its aim is to improve the nutrition status of school -going children through promotion of milk, which parents purchase from dairy farmers.
In Gulu District, Sseninde says, parents are responsive and the project has expanded.

“Parents are urged to take a portion of maize and beans to school. We started with one school, and the project has expanded to the entire district.” She adds that parents discuss options and agree to make contributions based on their preferences. Some prefer food while others prefer cash contributions.

“I think we need a multi-dimensional approach to fight hunger in schools both at the local and national level. What may work out in Kitgum which has vast land may not work out in Mbale. We may think of school farms but government should give supplementary funds to buy utensils and some food items. A study should be done for what can work best in each region, depending on the food crops they produce,” Lapyem sums up.

Punitive measures
In March last year, Gulu District passed a school feeding policy that compels parents to provide lunch to their children during school or be punished. According to the policy, parents who fail to ensure children eat at school can be subjected to punishment as determined by sub-county bye-laws. Also head teachers that will not embrace the policy programme are subject to disciplinary action under the Public Standing Orders. The policy however, spells out that no child shall be punished in anyway or prevented from attending school as a result of their parent’s failure to contribute to the programme.