The Federal Government’s plan to introduce a school feeding programme for primary school pupils across the country as one of the ways of addressing the rot in the education system has continued to elicit public debate. WINIFRED OGBEBO, in this piece, examines this programme and what it entails.
Widespread poverty in the country has over the years made it difficult for many families to properly cater for their children and send them to school. It is in fact, the reason for the increased number of out-of-school children in the country.
Some 1,000 children, according to UNICEF, die daily in Nigeria from malnutrition. This is clearly a very disturbing trend and is unacceptable. Absenteeism from school has been linked to common health problems in children, particularly iron deficiency and anaemia which affect the quality of education children receive.
Malnutrition in Nigeria, and Sub Saharan Africa has continued to be a public health problem where the poor socio-economic condition has continued to work in synergy with it.
Established as affecting the cognitive development and achievement of children, malnutrition also results in low health status which invariably leads to high withdrawal rate. Any wonder why the northern part of the country where malnutrition is most acute, records the highest number of out-of-school children estimated to be 10.5 million.
Herein lies the importance of the school feeding programme which should be applauded and supported by all Nigerians.
According to a paper entitled, “School Feeding Program In Nigeria: A Vehicle For Nourishment of Pupils” by Isa Yunusa, Ahmed Muhammed Gumel et all, malnutrition disorders affect more than 42 percent of school children in Nigeria and are responsible for 49 percent absenteeism of primary school age children.
It said, “School Feeding Program (SFPs) is designed to overcome malnutrition disorders through regular school-feeding to improve the health/nutrition status and the education abilities of school children.”
Commendably, the Federal Government has embarked on this social programme and made provision for the ‘a-meal-a-day’ in schools with about N500 billion, with other states like Lagos, and most of the northern states following suit.
The programme has received the support of many Nigerians, including the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC). Already, some state governments, including Kaduna, have also commenced the programme.
A lecturer in the faculty of administration, Nasarawa State University, Dr Sylvanus Itodo described the programme as a welcome development, saying there is nothing wrong in feeding the children.
“It means that we are going back to the old system. In those days, we were all staying in the boarding schools, there was nothing like elite students. So whether you like it or not, you must have to eat from the school feeding arrangement,” he pointed out.
Itodo, however, said he had wanted the government to declare a state of emergency in the nation’s education sector because it had continued to borrow ideas.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh has shed more light on the school feeding programme, saying the Federal Government is setting up a committee, in which his ministry may play a major role.
“We want to see if we can give every child a pint of milk a day. If you take the number of children in primary and secondary schools in the country, it’s about 18 million. We haven’t mentioned nursery school, which is 30 million. If we have to give every child a pint of milk a day, that is 30m pints of milk a day. But your cow produces only one litre compared to cows in Uganda which produce15 litres a day. The private sector will run the show and the ministry will back it because the attempt the ministry made to run the 14 centres was a disaster. You know very well government cannot run anything properly, too many challenges,” he pointed out.
He, however, said government would not sustain the one egg a day for now for its pupils. “As for eggs and milk, we definitely do not have to give out by tomorrow. If we have to give an egg to every school child, that is, 30m eggs, which means we must have at least 46m layers on the farms. What this means is that as we announce this, we stimulate ambition among the farmers. It means there is room for more layers on the farms. It means the hatchery have to expand, we have to increase layers. In Borno, Jigawa and Kano, temperatures are too harsh for these chickens, so we have to design new ways of building the pens, because we need to produce70 million eggs a day to satisfy Nigerian needs and to get there, we have to produce more maize and soya beans,” he further stated.
But in Kaduna State where the programme was flagged off on January 18 by Governor Nasir el-Rufai, it has started yielding results. Contractors hired by the state government to feed the primary school pupils complained of the increasing number of pupils in most primary schools in the state.
This means the policy is already succeeding in attracting children to school as some of the contractors complained they were overwhelmed by the turnout of the pupils since the inception of the exercise.
They said the number of the pupils had been on the increase, surpassing the official figures given them by the state government. Not only that, the pupils were equally said to be punctual as they reported to their classes on time, signifying interest in their education.
Ogbeh talked about sustenance of the policy, recounting that two states, namely Kano and Osun had been running the programme since 2005 while Nasarawa could not sustain it at the exit of the governor, Abdullahi Adamu.
“Borno did it once and there was rush into the schools because there is hunger in the villages. But my ministry and the office of the Vice President are working together to put the programme in place because if you do not watch it, corruption sets in and even the teachers may take the food, so that even the food may not get to the children. So we must pray and be vigilant and let people know that if you are caught, you will be punished. But it’s a necessity. But like I keep saying, down the ladder, life is not good, so we can’t go on like this. During elections we give them maggi and win elections and afterwards they are left alone,” he added.
This is even as another lecturer at the Nasarawa State University, Dr Charles Nwekeaku questioned the rationale behind the programme, saying, “How many people are you going to feed? I think most Nigerian parents would prefer that you equip the schools. That money you are using in the feeding programme is misplaced. First is that you cannot guarantee the quality of food, second is that the money would not even be sufficient, third is that feeding is not priority. Parents have accepted the responsibility of feeding their children but what government should do is to provide the facilities and conducive learning environment. Government should provide highly motivated teachers and well-equipped institutions and fund them in research. So the issue of feeding is misplaced priority.”