Nervous parents hamstring resumption of school feeding programme

Despite the department of education being ready to comply with a court order to ensure for 9.2 million children countrywide are fed, parents who fear they could get infected with Covid-19 are apparently preventing them from collecting their meals.

Last month the North Gauteng High Court ordered the immediate resumption of the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) for all 9.2 million children who depend on it, but nervous parents have been hamstringing rollout.

The Department of Basic Education, however, is confident the situation will improve in the coming weeks.

A report Education Director-General (DG) Mathanzima Mweli filed with the court last week stated the department was “ready to implement at full scale” but highlighted low turnouts to collect food so far.

“Provinces reported that learners that are not phased in do not support the programme as intended to cover whole school provision of meals or the [collection of] food parcels at school,” it read.

“Due to fears of Covid-19 parents do not not allow learners or learners themselves do not collect.”

The report was filed in accordance with a supervisory interdict issued with last month’s order, in terms of which the department had to file detailed plans to resume the NSNP – as well as regular updates on its progress – with the court.

This off the back of a legal battle between Equal Education together with two Limpopo schools and the department, over the suspension of the NSNP back in March.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in May announced the phased re-opening of schools and with it, the resumption of the NSNP for all qualifying pupils.

She later backtracked, however, saying initially only those pupils who were actually attending school would have access to the NSNP, prompting the court action.

Judge Sulet Potterill was scathing in her ruling, labelling children “categorically vulnerable.”

“Poor hungry children are exceptionally vulnerable,” she said. “The degree of the violation of the constitutional rights is thus egregious.”

Equal Education, together with the Equal Education Law Centre and Section27, in a statement earlier this month criticised the first plans filed and said they were “not detailed enough to guide the roll out of the NSNP.”

The most recent report provided additional detail, indicating from late July to early August some 1 232 834 children were fed across Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Free State, Mpumalanga and the North West. This reflects less than a third of the 3 815 008 children who qualified for the NSNP in these provinces.

In Gauteng, only 8% of the 1.5 million children who should have received food via the programme actually did.

No data was received for the Eastern Cape and the data received for the Northern Cape only reflected the number of children fed on one day during the period in question. Meanwhile, the data received for both KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo incorrectly reflected the number of meals served during the period – 2 347 406 and 1 595 165 respectively – instead of the number of children fed.

In the Free State, the report said parents seemed “reluctant to send learners to schools” and this was resulting in food wastage.

In addition, the province was experiencing challenges with social distancing and mask wearing. Some schools were also not able to feed children due to a lack of water; there was “constant closing” due to infections; and there was no learner transport to ferry children in far-flung areas to and from school to fetch their food.

In the North West, meanwhile, the report said if pupils did not collect their food then schools might be forced to stop preparing it for them in order to avoid wastage. This, however, only as “a last resort.”

Departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said today that the DG would be meeting with the provinces again from Wednesday and an updated report was expected by the end of the week.

“The situation is going to improve as more learners return to school and we anticipate that we will be able to feed more learners in the coming weeks,” Mhlanga said.

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Angie Motshekga

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