Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Nomthandazo Makhubela and her family are breathing a sigh of relief as learners of all grades return to school this week.
This is not because they’re reassured that the risk of contracting Covid-19 is now lower both for learners and teachers, but instead because the national school nutrition programme will resume, ensuring that both her younger sisters — in grades six and 12 — are guaranteed at least one meal a day. Her sisters attend different schools in Daveyton, a township in the east of Johannesburg.
“There’s eight of us at home, and only my father works. It’s been tough during lockdown, especially because we all now had to eat at home, unlike before,” she said. “At least my sister who is in matric went back to school earlier. This helped.”
Makhubela’s sisters are two of more than nine million learners across South Africa who depend on the school nutrition programme for at least one meal a day. The nutrition programme operates in quintile one to three schools, which are the poorest of public schools, at which learners don’t pay school fees. The meals should include a fruit and a vegetable, as well as portions of starch and protein.
But the feeding scheme came to an end when the country went into a strict lockdown at the end of March and schools were closed until June. This left millions of learners without their free, nutritious daily meal, which became even more crucial as the Covid-19 pandemic caused millions of families to lose their sources of income which, advocacy group Equal Education argues, has in turn increased food insecurity.
According to a recent National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, the loss of an income between February and April was “strongly associated with a higher likelihood of child hunger” in households. In interviews with about 7 000 adults in May and June, researchers found that 15% of respondents reported a child in their home had gone hungry in the week before they were interviewed.
“Child hunger was highest among black Africans, among whom 19% reported child hunger in the past week and 5% child hunger every day or almost every day. For children in households where the respondent had only primary education, child hunger was reported in 25% of cases, with 8% reporting that this happened every day or almost every day.”
The report recommended that school feeding schemes open before the return of all learners, and for an additional meal of breakfast to be immediately added for learners who are at the highest risk of malnutrition. It also said the programme should provide weekend meals during the pandemic.
But the education department could not continue the programme during lockdown because restrictions did not allow for movement, said basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga.
“In its history, it had never happened that the school nutrition programme is done outside school premises. All the infrastructure for it is in schools,” he said. “So there was no previous experience to refer to, one which could be implemented without increasing the risk for infections.”
However, according to Equal Education’s head of communications, Leanne Jansen-Thomas, the provincial education departments are obligated to ensure that learners receive food, whether at home or back at school.
According to the 2019 general household survey, about 82% of learners benefit from the school feeding scheme. Studies have shown that providing learners with a meal during a school day has improved their performance, attendance and nutritional status — especially in South Africa, where stunting occurs in a third of under-five-year-olds and a quarter of these children’s hospital deaths are associated with severe malnutrition.
But Makhubela said the portions of food served to her matriculant sister have been notably smaller than before the lockdown. “She’s asked us to leave some food for her to eat because the food at school isn’t filling. This is a new thing: before, the meal she got at school was enough.”
Meanwhile, a principal of a primary school in Limpopo said the food had never been enough in the first place and that his school had raised the issue before. “It’s a pity government claims that the food they provide to schools is enough,” he said. “It’s not, but we’re trying our best.”
According to the principal (who didn’t want to be named), the service provider was billing for food provided to all learners at his school, but the school was allowed to feed only the grade seven learners who were back at school at the time.
Another principal — of a primary school in North West — said her school resumed the nutrition programme in June when they reopened for grade sevens, but parents were not allowing their children to come and eat or collect food during the break. “I think maybe they were scared that their children will contract Covid-19,” she said. “Now, the [education] department wants us to explain why learners didn’t come to eat during the two weeks break.”
Equal Education learner members have reported that the delivery of food has improved in areas such as Nquthu in KwaZulu-Natal, which is a great relief, said Jansen-Thomas.
“Our learners in Ekurhuleni, Ga-Mashashane in Limpopo and, among other areas, in various parts of the Eastern Cape, say they don’t know where or when to collect meals or food parcels and only grade 12 learners received meals or food parcels,” she said. “Some learners were also unable to collect food at their nearest school — which may not be the school that they are enrolled in.”
Mhlanga said the department doesn’t anticipate that schools will close again and that all feeding schemes have resumed and been fully operational since the beginning of the week.
“We are happy that schools are open and it will continue as normal … If schools are open, then there is no challenge because we will do what we have been doing for more than 20 years,” he said.
Equal Education, meanwhile, is collecting feedback from its learner members on whether the nutrition programme has resumed.