How school meal is restoring confidence in public schools

Limsonboon and other officials during the visit

Limsonboon and other officials during the visit

Prof Amazigbo

Prof Amazigbo

A report from the World Bank on sustainable education identified school meal programme as “social safety nets that could provide educational and health benefits to vulnerable children” in the society.

The report said the scheme would increase enrollment rates, going by the number of out of school children roaming the streets, especially in the third world countries; improve food nutrition and overall health indices among children. The implication of the Bank’s posture is that for education to be impactful, the child must be healthy to receive it, no matter his or her location.

President Buhari’s pledge
During the presidential campaign earlier this year, President Muhammadu Buhari promised that if voted into office, his administration would provide free meals daily for every primary school pupil in the country.

Although the school meal programme is yet to take off five months after assuming office, there are indications that the federal government will soon roll out the programme. The Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who dropped the hint recently said that plans have been concluded to commence giving primary school children the free meals. According to him, the multiplier effects of the introduction of the school feeding scheme would help to create 1.14 million new jobs; increase food production by up to 530,000 metric tons per annum, as well as attract fresh investments up to N980bn.

He said: “One of the most important interventions required in the education sector is capacity building to improve teacher quality. This programme is intended to drive teachers’ capacity development; boost basic education; attract talents to the teaching profession. Better educated population increases economic potential for productivity.

“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.”

Nnamani’s initiative
However in Enugu state, in an attempt to replicate the recommendation of the World Bank so as to grow her public schools and impact on the health of the pupils, the administration of former Governor Chimaroke Nnamani introduced the free school meal programme in 2003 in primary schools in the state. Nnamani, who said the scheme, was a critical phase in the academic development of all children went as far as hiring food vendors that supplied the meals in line with the menu approved for the day for the pupils to be fed once daily.

It was and still the first school meal programme to be initiated and wholly sponsored by any state government in the southeast. Unfortunately, two years down the line, the programme kissed the dust as it could not be sustained due to what experts described as non-involvement of communities in it, financial constraints, and logistics problems, among others. “The government ran the programme and the people themselves were not part of it. They were only recipients and there is no free lunch that hardly survive in the African contest”, investigations revealed.

PACIEH’s initiative
Apparently armed with the shortcomings of the Nnamani experience; a non–governmental organization, the Pan-African Community Initiative on Education and Health (PACIEH), two years ago reinvented the school-meal programme for rural primary schools in Enugu and Anambra state. Following the organization’s lean resources, it decided to adopt the programme in four public rural community schools in the two states.

The schools are Community Nursery and Primary School, Oma-Eke and Central Nursery and Primary School, Eke, all in Udi local government, Enugu state as well as the Central School, Afor-Agu and Salvation Army Nursery and Primary School, Afor-Agu, all in Abatete, Anambra state.

Adopting a more practical approach to the project, the organization decided to involve the communities by making each of the pupils in the benefiting schools contribute fifty naira per week for their meal which comes in variety of local nutritious foods prepared by their own parents in the school kitchen.

Other components of the programme introduced by the organization include deworming exercise for the pupils, provision of water and sanitation to the schools as well as treatment of minor illnesses – ear, nose and throat as well as health screening results.

It was initiated by a former Director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) African Programme for Onchocerciases Control, Prof Uche Amazigo. She stated that the intervention was not only to boost enrollment figures in rural public schools, but to improve healthy and quality learning among primary school pupils.

It is also aimed at reducing hunger, malnutrition and improves health status of school age children in rural areas, increase enrollment in public schools; improve attendance as well as partnership between communities, government, private sector and civil society for the growth of the educational sector.

Amazigo, a nutritionist, had invested the prize money she won from the Prince Mahidol award from the kingdom of Thailand in 2013 to set up the non –governmental oganization, PACIEH which drives the project. The Guardian learnt that the feeding of the school pupils effectively began in January last year after the PACIEH team of medical doctors which comprised primarily of doctors from the Department of Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) surgery of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital

(UNTH), Enugu conducted a pre-intervention health needs assessment of the primary school children.

In the four rural Schools that serve as the pilot sites in Enugu and Anambra states, the pupils were subjected to clinical evaluation, with emphasis on medical history as well as clinical examination of the head and neck, ear, nose and throat.

Giving reasons for conducting the pre-intervention health needs, Amazigo said: “This was predicated upon the fact that the senses which are important for childhood learning process, are located within and around the same region of the body. The child needs to have optimal auditory health to be able to hear and understand what the teachers are trying to do. Childhood ear, nose, throat, scalp and skin disease conditions, which are commonly inflammatory and infectious also, impact negatively on the learning abilities of a child. They keep the child uncomfortable, leading to increased child irritability, poor attention to learning and absence from school. These conditions can be worsened by reduced immunity if the child is either undernourished or malnourished”.

Other members of the implementation team include Prof UcheEze; now Commissioner for Education, Enugu state, Prof Nkechi Ene-Obong, Dr. Ngozi Njepuome, Prof. Obioma Nworgu, Dr. Rufina Ayogu, Mr Paul Eme, Mrs. Amarachi Ene, Dr. Lizziana Onuigbo, Prof. Nnadi Onyegegbu and Dr. Cheluchi Onuobia.

A year after, the programme appears to have caught the needed attention as the two state governments want to adopt it to restore lost confidence of their primary schools, especially in Enugu state.

Thailand impressed by the initiative
Similarly, the schools meal programme has caught the fancy of the Thai authorities in Nigeria. The Thailand Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Chailert Limsomboon recently visited the rural primary schools in Enugu and Anambra states to have a feel of the programme and how the organization planned to sustain it. Conducting the Ambassador and his team which spent three days in Enugu round the rural schools, Amazigo said the intervention was gradually yielding positive results as it now feeds about 770 pupils from the initial 445 which started the pilot scheme.

She said: “The School feeding has increased enrolment, attendance, retention of pupils at the schools and their cognition has dramatically improved, with their nutritional status and micronutrient deficiencies. These are the drivers of our mission and efforts. It is an investment in human capital development.

“In 2013, screening and treatment of skin, ear, nose and throat infections revealed startling/shocking poor health conditions of pupils in rural schools. There are children in the schools we work who trek 2 kilometres and more to school every day. Even when they have had the monotonous carbohydrate diet, they arrived the schools tired and hungry. Can a hungry child concentrate in class? School feeding is a social safety net programme and a ‘best buy’ in fostering education. Since we introduced the programme, these children hardly get sick or drop from school due to ill-health because we examine them regularly. They have continued to improve and there are no more empty classrooms.

“I hope this unique and holistic approach will bring about a rethinking of health and school feeding, first, in the states, Anambra and Enugu where we have the first projects and later nation-wide, in order to improve the nutritional status and access to education of school age children in rural communities”.

She stated that with the partnership the organization established with the Heineken Africa Foundation/Nigeria Breweries Plc, the TruValu, the benefiting communities in Enugu and Anambra states, the Partnership for Child Development (PCD) and the Ministry of education in the two states, some of the school that were dilapidated at the onset now have newly built and refurbished classrooms, toilets, wash hand pumps, water among others which were hitherto not available in the affected schools.

“Before we began the school meal, we brought a health educator who moved from class to class to train them and their teachers on proper hand washing. We began it in January last year and so when Ebola crisis came it was easy because our children were already trained on proper washing with soap and water. So every day you find our children line up, class to class including the nursery children to wash their hands before eating.

“For me, that’s the part of the programme that I liked so much, that we were able to design wash points for the children and they go home and practice the same. That is what I tell the government that even if you don’t have money for school meal, you can deworm the children at least once a year. The drugs are free and when they do this, they will help bring down the diseases. I do hope that Enugu government will emulate what we have done in the areas of wash points and replicate it in other schools to help reduce diseases and encourage hand washing among the children”, Amazigo disclosed.

A member of the implementation team, Dr Ngozi Njepuome explained that the decision to ask the pupils to pay fifty naira weekly was to commit their parents to the project, stressing that part of the reasons that led to the failure of the initiative by the then government of Enugu state was lack of input by the benefitting schools.

“There is no free launch anywhere. What is not in doubt is that every day the child spends at least fifty naira to buy biscuits, groundnut among others during break period. But we felt that rather than spend the money on those items, they should contribute it to the purse to enable them feed in the school. Our research has also shown that what we give them here is of the right quality”, she stated.

She said the enthusiasm currently being shown by the pupils should be sustained by the provision of adequate teachers and academic materials to enable them compete effectively with their peers, especially in private schools.

Enugu to partner with PACIEH
Evaluating the impact of the programme, Enugu State Commissioner of Education, Prof Uche Eze, said government was prepared to partner with PACIEH to improve quality of learning standard in her primary schools, stressing that the confidence that was lost in public primary schools that gave rise to the plethora of private schools in the state was gradually being restored.

He stressed that as part of her commitment to the project; the government last year began the deworming of pupils in primary schools across the state and had so far concluded the exercise in two senatorial zones – Enugu West and East. The Commissioner said that 448 primary schools have been renovated through the Enugu State Basic Education Board (ENSUBEB), adding that PACIEH initiative has exposed the yawning gap in the state government’s effort to promote learning towards human empowerment and sustainable future.

“Enugu is desirous of this initiative from what we have seen so far. The pilot schools have become our model. We now know that the private sector must play active role in any policy initiated by government and we intend to pursue the private schools using the initiative by PACIEH”, the Commissioner asserted.

Thailand Ambassador’s advice
Ambassador Limsomboon said that with the widening gap in income which has left many homes in penury, especially in third world countries, public rural schools will continue to be left for the poorest of the poor, adding however, that it was worse when the “children who patronize those schools don’t receive quality foods in addition to lack of quality learning”.

“We will then be looking at future that is tainted with all manner of mediocre and people who can neither read nor write and are sickly. Government should therefore play the leading role in this direction by ensuring that it encourages the school meal programme. There is no other way you can reach these children except through the schools and it is almost established that a division has been created with people who patronize the private schools and the-have-not in the society”, the Ambassador said.

Limsomboon, who said he was fascinated by the components of the project added however: “I think it is important to sustain the programme and the kind of sustainability I will advise is self-sustenance. So if they can have their own materials from their school garden, they can have chicken in their own poultry farm, then they might not need to rely on anyone or anything outside their relations to make the school meal programme sustainable. Like I also observed, government must restore lost values through this programme”.

The expectation is that Enugu and Anambra states would listen to the Thailand Ambassador and embraced the scheme fully for the benefit of the entire schools in the two states.

Also, it is now left for the federal government to roll out its school free meal scheme and for the rest states of the federation to follow the noble step as it has the potential to impact positively on the educational sector and the country’s economy in general if properly implemented.

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