THE ministry of education and sports has now asked primary schools from across the country to feed their children in a bid to curb absenteeism and poor performance tagged to hunger
By Innocent Anguyo
RECENTLY, Uganda's Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde left residents dumbfounded when she wept at the sight of hungry children during a school fundraiser in Mpigi town council.
Namabo Primary School in Kafumu Parish, Mpigi town council where Kyambadde sobbed is just one of the many across the country that where pupils are studying on an empty stomach.
However, the ministry of education and sports has now asked primary schools from across the country to feed their children in a bid to curb absenteeism and poor performance tagged to hunger.
Speaking to New Vision in an exclusive interview on Friday, Education Minister Jessica Alupo said school authorities should discourse with parents on modalities of feeding children.
"School management committees, board of governors and parents and teachers' associations are urged to feed all children at school without fail," argued Alupo.
The minister said she expected schools in the rural areas to easily find food to feed their pupils since the countryside is the arbiter of all sorts of food items.
"There is misconception is that children in rural areas are the hungriest. The idea that there is no food in rural areas should not arise anymore. Children in rural areas should be well managed. People should organize themselves and find a way of getting food to schools."
By 2010, there were over 8.7 million children studying in Ugandan primary schools- with more than of a half of that number not being fed in schools.
Owing to the high dropout rates partially fuelled by lack of meals in schools in Uganda, a 2014 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established that completion rate is low, affecting access rates to the subsequent cycles.
It emerged that although almost every child enrolls in primary one, 63% of the generation reaches primary seven; only 49% enters lower secondary and ultimately only 10% reach senior six.
In a 2010 memo to cabinet, the education ministry stated that hunger is one of the main reasons children perform poorly in UPE schools.
It explained that hungry children have poor concentration, poor mental abilities, absenteeism, bad behaviour, poor health and are school drop-outs.
The Education Act allows schools to charge parents a limited amount of money for feeding children, provided it is agreed upon by the school management committee in consultation with the district council.
It, however, maintains that such payment be voluntary. The law also states that pupils must not be dismissed from school if their parents do not pay lunch fees.
Other options proposed by the ministry for feeding school children include children returning home for lunch then going back to school. This is practical for children whose homes are near the school.
Using school gardens to provide food was also proposed such that the children can cultivate their own food during co-curricular activities.
The document further proposed that parents can cultivate communal land and supply schools with food. Another option is for parents to give their children packed lunch, which experts say has failed miserable.
In light of buttressing schools against scarcity of food, Alupo recently also announced a partnership between the Education Ministry and the World Food Programme (WFP) that will see schools get seeds for establishing farms.
"Farm implements such as hand hoes will be procured for schools in Karamoja region. Schools will be monitored to ascertain the implementation of the program to ensure great success and sustainability," said Alupo.
A New Vision mini survey shows that teachers are happy that such a request has come from the sector leader. However, most teachers say parents have to pay some money to the respective schools of their children so that meals can be prepared.
Patience Avako, a teacher in Arua says: "a school is not an orphanage where it has to act like a care giver. Let each child fund his or her meals in school."
In fact, many schools head teachers said they were already feeding their children with support of financial contribution from their parents by the time Alupo made the request.
At Mengo Primary school in 2012, the children had to pay sh10, 000 per term and those who had paid were given meal cards.
At Buganda Road Primary School, by 2012, the management had set a lunch fee of sh10, 400 for the daily menu of posho, beans, cabbages and tomatoes (since 1997).
Nevertheless, attempts to ask parents to contribute lunch fees in some areas have been unsuccessful.
Richard Nsubuga, the headteacher of Namabo Primary School said that of the 350 pupils in the school, only 50 had cleared lunch dues for the school term.
"Many children come empty handed because their illiterate parents think that with UPE, everything is free," Jane Kibuuka, the then headteacher of Kukanga Primary School in Mubende recently told New Vision. By 2012, the school asked parents to pay about sh7,000 per pupil for school lunch, but only a few brought the money.
James Tweheyo, the secretary General of Uganda National Teachers' Union (UNATU) said for provision of meals in schools to be a success, government should develop guidelines to inform the process.
He noted that, without such guidelines, schools may decline to offer meals to their children.
"It is a good idea but it should not be rushed. There should be clear guidelines for implementation and supervision. There also needs to be a set of penalties for schools that falter," said Tweheyo.
Parents have also welcomed Alupo's suggestion. Leticia Sabuni a parent in Kampala says if Alupo's idea is implemented, her children will not have to walk for 10kms to home just to have meals when they have to return for afternoon lessons.
"Essentially, it will allow children to learn how to eat in public and socialize with others at meals times. However, the meals have to be thoroughly inspected for quality," said Rutaro Ismail, a parent with a child in Green Hill Academy, Kampala.
Civil society activists have equally backed Alupo's idea.
"The Government should allow parents to contribute to the feeding of their children at school," said Kiddu Gonzaga, the Senior Program Officer of Hunger Free World, a local Nongovernmental organization in Kampala.
Gonzaga said if children are not adequately fed, they may grow up into criminals, on grounds that "hungry people are angry".
Gov''t asks schools to feed pupils without fail