PRESIDENT Yoweri Museveni has gone around the country stopping school headteachers from asking parents to contribute money for their childrenâ€™s feeding while at school. To him, this may hinder some pupils whose parents can not afford to pay from attending classes and subsequently dropping out of school.
The President may be right but most likely he has not yet interacted with the pupils themselves who battle with hunger on a daily basis yet it is their right to have regular access to sufficient, nutritional and adequate food for them to attain an active and healthy life.
His suggestion that pupils should come with ready food from home may not solve the problem as some parents can not afford the luxuries of preparing food every morning for their children and packing it in the most convenient way for a child. Majority of the pupils in rural areas go hungry the whole day, not because their parents wish them so but because they can not afford to buy the food containers for their children.
In some areas like Karamoja, children go to school because they expect to find food there. The non-formal Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja (ABEK) Programme under the Ministry of Education and Sports where children are given free food when they attend school has attracted about 42,250 learners, 1,427 of who have since crossed to the formal education system, according to Save the Children. This implies that provision of food at school may increase enrollment even in hard-to-reach areas like Karamoja, as opposed to staying hungry the whole day.
While meeting the Minister of State for Primary Education, Peter Lokeris, at Hotel Equatoria early this month, children from 65 schools in five districts pointed out that going without meals at school did not only affect their levels of concentration in class but also caused permanent effects on their growth. To them, hunger makes them weak, sleepy and absent-minded during class hours and this eventually affects their performance at the end of the term.
Research also shows that hunger contributes to malnutrition and increased cases of chronic illnesses among children such as cold, headaches, stomachache and emotional disorders. In some cases, children may be tempted to engage in bad behaviour like sex in order to get money for lunch.
In rural areas, for instance, it is not rare to find pupils in peopleâ€™s gardens stealing sugarcane and mangoes just to fight hunger while at school, or engaging in income generating activities like fetching water, selling polythene bags, working in sugarcane plantations, and carrying luggage in order to get money to buy food while at school. This is tantamount to child labour.
Lack of meals at school does not only affect the child but also the teacher who works on an empty stomach lacks motivation. As the saying goes, â€œA hungry man is an angry manâ€ and it is worse when a hungry teacher is teaching a hungry child.
The Government can solve the problem of meals by developing a food policy in schools where parents pay for their childrenâ€™s meals at a subsidised rate. This will help poor parents to meet the feeding needs of their children. The Government may also encourage self-reliance by promoting agricultural activities in schools. Produce from such activities may be used to reduce on the costs that parents may incur every term to pay for childrenâ€™s meals.
No research has been carried out in Uganda to estimate the effects of hunger on childrenâ€™s performance in UPE.
However, it is evident from the pupilsâ€™ testimonies that they can not perform better while learning on empty stomachs. Until the Government finds remedies to such hindrances, it will remain a self-delusion for it to achieve its strategic objective of quality education for all and the Millennium Development Goal of ensuring that all boys and girls complete primary education.
The writer is the Programme Officer for Information at ANPPCAN Uganda Chapter
Lunch should be compulsory in schools