What you need to know:
- The government insists it has played its part by making education accessible, but faults parents for neglecting their roles.
Ian Birungi, a Primary Four pupil, takes a few steps and then stands to take a drink from the red plastic cup in his hand. He walks towards a group of boys drinking from similar cups. They are drinking their lunch – a cup of sugarless, watery, white porridge. Although each child is entitled to one cup, Birungi is on his second cup.
“I keep an eye on the serving line. When it shortens, I will sneak in for a third cup. Two cups of porridge have not satisfied me. They do not give us full cups. Only half a cup. Porridge cannot satisfy me, but it reduces hunger,” he says.
Birungi came to school at 7am, in time for the first lesson.
“I did not have breakfast. The last meal I ate was supper. At 10pm. The leftovers from supper are reserved for those who remain at home to dig,” he says.
It is ten minutes past 1pm and groups of pupils dot the compound of Namayumba C/U Primary School, drinking their lunch. Others are still in line, under an ancient mango tree at the entrance of the school, waiting to be served. Some pupils who have emptied their cups in record time are playing dodgeball and football. Their happy screams echo around the school.
The government-aided school is located 46 kilometres west of Kampala City, in Namayumba Town Council, Wakiso District. The school has 728 students and 11 teachers. When funds are available, six private teachers are hired to help with the load.
“The porridge is well cooked, but it does not have sugar. My mother told me the school is supposed to provide sugar. But, it does not,” Birungi says.
A few feet away from the hungry eyes of the other pupils, about 20 children, whose parents can afford to pay for solid food, sit in a classroom, eating posho (ugali) and beans. Solid food costs Shs30,000 (USD 8) per term.
Tom Gamusi, the school’s director of studies, and a class teacher for the Primary Six class says porridge is better than nothing.
“Every child pays Shs11,250 (USD 3) per term for a cup of porridge. But, even with that low fee, parents pay in instalments. Very few parents can afford the Shs30,000 (USD 8) for a plate of food,” he says.
Parents who cannot afford to pay for porridge, bring firewood for cooking. The porridge is watered down so that children whose parents cannot afford even firewood, do not miss out.
Annet Mulumya, the head teacher, compares her pupils to prisoners, who, she says, do menial work but eat only one meal a day.
“Our children are used to this situation. Most of them eat only one meal a day – at night. The pupils here are lucky to get a cup of porridge for lunch. In other schools, pupils go hungry the entire day,” she says.
A 2020 report, Challenges and Prospects for Financing School Feeding under the UPE Programme in Uganda, found that out of the eight million children attending school, the largest proportion goes hungry, with only 33% of the children receiving meals at school. Currently, schools implementing Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE) are following a parent-led school feeding policy stemming from the 2013 School Feeding and Nutrition Guidelines released by the Ministry of Education and Sports.
Dr Joyce Moriku Kaducu, the Minister of State for Primary Education, asserts that feeding children is the responsibility of parents.
“Education is a shared responsibility. The government and parents have different roles to play. The government ensures that there is a conducive environment for learning by providing infrastructure, teachers and learning materials. Parents have the core responsibility of sending the learner to school, ensuring the learner is appropriately dressed, and that the learner is well fed, even at school,” she says.
The guidelines conform with the Education Act 2008 (Article 5, sub-section 2(c). The presumption is that all parents can afford to feed their children at school, either by bringing raw food or by packing lunch.
Hunger, a constant companion
However, in many rural schools, pupils are starving because parents claim to be constrained by the current economic downturn. In Kanyum Primary School, in Kanyum County, Kumi District, at lunchtime pupils roam the trading centre, looking for mango trees and untended gardens from which to uproot tubers.
Unlike her companions, Joyce Mary Aworuga, a Primary Seven pupil, is sleeping on her desk.
“I am so hungry. I don’t feel well during the afternoon lessons. Sometimes, I sleep. I last ate food last night. There are eleven children at home, so my parents cannot afford to pay money to feed all of us. There is no food at home,” she says.
Initially, the parents agreed to bring 10 kilogrammes of posho, five kilogrammes of beans and a fee of Shs5,000 every term. However, according to Robert Omoding, head teacher of Kanyum Primary School, out of 1068 pupils, only 20 have paid.
“We have had a long dry spell in this region and parents say they are unable to feed their children. They promised to feed them when the rains come. Those pupils who live nearby walk home for lunch. The rest hang around, playing or sleeping,” he says.
Children need food to concentrate
Saphina Nakulima, the programmes manager for the Right to Education programme at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) Uganda, says nutrition is important in retaining a child in school.
“In 2016, we visited a newly constructed government school in Kween District. It did not have pupils. The community told us their children prefer to walk to the next district, in the Karamoja sub-region, to attend school there because the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing food in those schools,” she says.
She adds that the option of children going home for lunch is not feasible.
“Some children live three to five kilometres away from school. Where do they get the motivation to walk back to school after lunch? Some reach home when lunch is not ready and have to wait for it.”
At Kanyum Primary School, the gong signalling the start of afternoon lessons was sounded at 2pm. However, at 2.30pm, pupils are still streaming into the compound. Some have half-eaten mangoes in their hands.
Emmanuel Emong, a Primary Five teacher, says the concentration levels are low after lunch.
“The Primary Five class has 120 pupils but only four paid for lunch. By 5pm, when we break off, only the four have benefited from the afternoon lessons. The rest don’t concentrate. Some fall asleep. I don’t blame the parents because some have many children. Feeding is a challenge,” he says.
Hunger and good performance do not go hand in hand. Mulumya says although her pupils are used to porridge for lunch, their performance could be better.
“The performance is bad. At some point, we were always sending children to a nearby health centre, with complaints of stomachaches. The health workers helped us diagnose that these aches were due to hunger pangs,” she says.
Last year, 68 pupils from Namayumba C/U Primary School sat for the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE). Only three passed in the first grade, 42 scored in the second grade, 21 passed in the third grade, and two failed. At Kanyum Primary School, 64 pupils sat for PLE. Only one passed in the first grade, 22 scored in the second grade, 18 passed in the third grade, and the rest failed.
According to the 2020 Report, irregular student attendance has been partly attributed to a lack of mid-day meals at school; low teacher attendance; low societal appreciation of the long-term benefits of schooling; and late enrollment for school. Dr Moriku agrees that hunger may be the cause of poor performance in UPE schools. According to the Uganda National Examinations Board, in the 2022 PLE results, 97,109 pupils failed the exams. In 2020, 74,878 failed the exams.
“Children who do not eat lunch cannot be expected to excel. We are sensitising parents. I call upon the community to talk to the parents to ensure that they embrace their cardinal responsibility of feeding their children. Where there is no food, we are failing to perform,” she says.
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Appreciating linkage between meals and learning outcomes
Parents’ refusal to pay for their children’s lunch may seem justified. In January, while addressing 514 head teachers at the National Leadership Institute in Kyankwanzi District, President Yoweri Museveni appealed to them to stop charging learners, saying the act sabotages government plans of promoting human resource development.
Museveni was disheartened to learn that the completion rate in UPE schools is 32 per cent caused by the expulsion of pupils for non-payment of lunch fees.
“Can you imagine? Do you have hopes of going to heaven? Don’t chase children from school because of lunch. How does that help? Instead, teachers can sensitise parents to organise packed lunch for their children,” he was quoted as asking.
Julius Kapwepwe, the director of programmes at Uganda Debt Network (UDN), is confident that the government knows it has a stake in the feeding of its children.
“Since 1997, when UPE started, we have had millions enrolling in schools, which is good for our human capital development. However, the government, which has over the years invested heavily in the education sector, in terms of infrastructure and learning materials, should find a win-win mechanism of feeding children at school. Benchmarking has been done in schools in Karamoja and Lango regions and in Wakiso and Ntungamo districts and reports have been produced. Government needs to be given time to overcome its revenue challenges. We should be able to see a government-led school feeding programme soon,” he says.
Kanyum Primary School has four gardens in which the school administration intended to plant food to feed the pupils. However, Emong says last year’s drought failed them.
“We had planned to plant maize in two gardens, and then cassava and sweet potatoes in the other gardens. But, the rains were not stable. We hope to start planting soon and we are hoping for a good season. In the meantime, I appeal to the government that since they are the ones who came up with a parent-led policy, they should not go behind our backs to discourage parents from paying money to support feeding their children,” he says.
The school needs funds to buy seeds and cuttings to grow. These funds are not catered for in the school budget. The UPE capitation grant is Shs20,000 (USD 5) for every student, every year. This means every term, the government contributes Shs6,666 (USD 1.7) towards the education of each student in the UPE programme. The USE capitation grant is Shs 58,000 (USD 15.6) per student, per year. These grants cover instructional material, co-curricular activities, school management, administration costs, and contingency expenditure. They do not cover meals.
Countries, such as Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, which have successfully implemented government-led school feeding programmes are realising 90-95 per cent retention rates. Uganda’s school retention rate stands at 52 per cent.
From the academic year 2022-2023, Rwanda’s school feeding programme for nursery and primary schools is government-led, with the government covering 89 per cent of the fee and parents contributing 11 per cent. The school feeding funding per term is Rwf9,750 (USD 8.9) per child.
In Burkina Faso, a randomised trial found that giving either free daily school meals to all children or free monthly take-home rations of flour to all girls with at least a 90 per cent attendance rate increased school participation and student learning of both genders after a year. The programmeme also increased enrollment by 4-5 percentage points.
Stakeholders here advise that if improving access to education is the goal, then a government-led school feeding programme must be incorporated in the government's strategy for the education sector.
“Government needs to rethink its stand. Hungry children may continue to Primary Seven or Senior Four, but their performance will be so poor that they cannot proceed to the next level. If you have few youths coming out of tertiary institutions then human capital development is being compromised,” Nakulima says.
One way the government can solve the impasse is by linking school feeding to its affirmative action programmemes.
“Government has invested heavily in the Parish Development Model (PDM) and the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), which can be reconciled to school feeding. Village-based producer groups can supply schools in their communities and the government works out a mechanism of paying them. In this way, the government will be increasing household income by providing a ready market, and feeding school children,” Kapwepwe says.
As he drains the last drop of porridge from his cup, Birungi hopes it will keep the hunger pangs at bay until 4pm. On the other hand, Aworuga’s only hope is to stay awake during the afternoon lessons. Both look forward to their only meal of the day, which is eight hours away, at 10pm.
This article was produced as part of the Aftershocks Data Fellowship (22-23) with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with The ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).