Boosting enrolment figures, quality of learning with school feeding programme


A caterer attending to Osun primary school pupils

Penultimate week, Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo said the Federal Government would soon commence feeding primary school pupils once daily. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY and UJUNWA ATUEYI, enumerate some of the benefits as stakeholders worry about the sustainability of the initiative. 

School Feeding Programmes (SFP) have been defined by the World Bank as “targeted social safety nets that provide both educational and health benefits to the most vulnerable children, thereby increasing enrolment rates, reducing absenteeism, and improving food security at the household level.”

Beyond this, the bank added, SFPs also have a positive impact on nutritional status, gender equity, and educational status, each of which contributes to improving overall levels of country and human development.

Educational and nutritional experts are in sync with the bank’s assertion even as they further assert that nutritional and health statuses are powerful influences on children’s learning abilities and on how well they perform in school.

Looking at it from another prism, these experts still see SFPs as an initiative aimed at encouraging the less privileged to enrol their wards in school, as children that are fed with nutritious meals are more inclined to concentrating and participating better in school tasks which eventually translates to improved academic performances.

On the African continent, South Africa which has over the last two decades, made a substantial investment in Early Childhood Development (ECD), a very critical phase in the academic development of all children, has about nine million children benefitting from its school feeding programme.

Important as this may be, the figure is no where near what the Indian midday meals programme, one of the biggest such schemes anywhere in the world is covering. Over 120 million children are benefitting from the scheme run in about 72, 000 primary schools across Bihar, one of the poorest states in the India

In Nigeria, through the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act, the Home Grown School Feeding and Health Programme (HGSFHP) was introduced in 2004 by the Federal Government to, among other things, help in achieving the Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals. That legislation provided that at a minimum, all state primary schools must provide at least one meal a day to each pupil.

The phased-pilot rollout spearheaded by the Federal Ministry of Education set sail with 13 states including Abuja, from the six geo-political zones on board. The states were Kebbi, Cross River, Enugu, Ogun, Imo, Kano, Kogi, Rivers, Osun, Nasarawa and Yobe and Bauchi states. At different times, they all abandoned the programme until the current Osun State government led by Mr. Rauf Aregbesola, returned to it.

The Osun Elementary School Feeding and Health Programme (O’MEALS), which was formerly known as Osun State Home Grown School Feeding and Health Programme commenced as a pilot programme in the State in May 2006.

According to the state government, the revamped programme has helped increase school enrolment by a minimum of 38, 000 pupils representing 25 per cent. Within this period the government says the number of beneficiaries has risen from 180, 000 to 254, 000. Also, the daily food allowance it said has increased from N50 to N250 per child, while in the process, capacity building and empowerment of 3, 007 community caterers has taken place and the local poultry industry given immense boost.

During his presidential campaign in January, President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Peoples Congress (APC) had promised a one-meal-per day for primary school students across the country if voted into office.
The Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, who revisited the issue as the roll out date draws nigh said the free feeding scheme was a core project of the Federal Government that would in turn yield about 1.14 million new jobs; increase food production by up to 530,000 metric tonnes per annum, as well as attract fresh investments up to N980bn.

Osinbajo, who spoke on the topic, “Repositioning Nigeria for Sustainable Development: From Rhetoric to Performance,” at the 45th Annual Accountants Conference in Abuja, said the government would be investing more in the people, education and job creation.
“The All Progressives Congress has made a commitment to provide one-meal-a-day for all primary school students; that would create jobs in agriculture, including poultry, catering and delivery services,” he stated.

Even with the initiative yet to commence, Director General, Office of Education Quality Assurance, Lagos State, Mrs. Ronke Soyombo, says the Nigerian education system, especially basic education would receive a boost with the SFP.

She added that the policy if properly implemented, would bolster enrolment figures as parents would willingly send their wards to school.
“When children are well fed, their learning abilities heightens and their level of concentration better because their sugar levels would be affected.

So, the project is seriously going to move education forward in the country.
“Of course the programme will increase school enrolment because it is a big support for pupils and our parents. Not all parents can afford to give three square meals to their children. So the policy is a way forward and really a big support for all parents, stakeholders and even teachers because they won’t be teaching pupils with empty stomachs anymore.”

Soyombo, who said good nutrition was essential to the body as it enables the body systems to function optimally, added that the SFP would make up the nutritional lack some pupils suffer.
“Looking at the level of poverty in the country, some parents do not consider nutritional value when feeding their children. Foods that are excessively sugary or high in fats can minimise our energy levels from day to day. Sugary foods can create fluctuations in blood sugar levels, causing us to feel tired very shortly after eating. By eating a healthy diet, pupils would maintain their energy levels throughout the day and so I’m hopeful that this policy would address all these because pupils would be served with a balanced diet,” she stressed.

Former Director, Quality Assurance Department, Education District III, Lagos State, Mrs. Patricia Aziakpono Enase, expressed delight in the policy, but expressed fears whether the policy could be sustained for maximum benefit.

She said the feeding programme if well implemented and sustained, would go a long way in improving standards and enrolment in the educational sector.
“The school feeding programme is a good innovation. But my fear is, would they be able to sustain it? No doubt, it will attract children to schools and parents on their part would push their children early to school because they know that when they get to school, they would have something to eat. But how far are we going to go? That is the challenge,” she added.

Because many children in public schools go to school hungry and end up not concentrating in class, Executive Director, VolunteerCorps Nigeria, Adeola Awogbemi, says the SFP is “admirable and a good initiative. Feeding them once daily would rather boost their learning achievement, cognitive functions and academic performance. But government has to do a lot more to ensure that these meals are nutritious and contains balanced diet. However, I worry about the sustainability of this initiative.

Alongside this initiative, government needs to carry out a needs assessment on parents of these students and ascertain where they need help in order to help them by providing gainful employment that will help them take care of their kids in the long run rather than leave it all to government.

On what value feeding primary school pupils would add to basic education in the country, she said, “World Food Programme’s school feeding formula is simple: food attracts hungry children to school. And education broadens their options, helping to lift them out of poverty. Nutrition interventions through school feeding helps prevent malnutrition during foetal development and the early years of life—the most critical period for growth and development. Also school feeding improves school enrolment and attendance. In 2006, the First Lady of Zamfara State initiated feeding in schools in every local government and this improved girl-child school enrolment and attendance in the state.”

While reiterating the fact that school feeding programme “reduces the number of school dropouts; increase the rate of primary school completion as well as bring about a reduction in education gap, especially in the northern part of the country, Awogbemi said it was important for government to put in place conditions that would ensure that the programme is not truncated before it even takes off.

Considering the tragic death of about 25 Indian school pupils after a contaminated school meal last year, what precautions should be in place before the commencement of the programme?

She responded, “For this initiative to achieve success, it is important for government to develop the capacities of hygiene personnel and reinforce the culture of health inspectors. It is important to first put in place, a monitoring team before feeding commences. The educational sector can work hand in hand with the Ministry of Health to avoid giving out contaminated or poisonous food to the children as this would be disastrous.”
“Finally, it is important for the government to ensure the sustainability of this initiative otherwise it would become another avenue to create jobs for the boys.”

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