A HANDFUL of maize might not seem enough for a meal, but that is lunch for Michael Otim. Like hundreds of other children, the 12-year-old studies on an empty stomach. On bad days, Otim looks at the blackboard and does not understand what has been scribble
A HANDFUL of maize might not seem enough for a meal, but that is lunch for Michael Otim. Like hundreds of other children, the 12-year-old studies on an empty stomach. On bad days, Otim looks at the blackboard and does not understand what has been scribbled and listens to the teacher, but only hears a howling sound.
Otim wants to fight hard to break through, but the hunger has already affected his grades and he is contemplating dropping out of school after P.7.
Claire Nakacwa, a pupil at a city school, has not forgotten the day she thought she would faint in class. Two years ago, her mother, a tailor, stopped preparing her lunch because food was expensive. The family opted to have only supper. Nonetheless, Nakacwaâ€™s mother gives her sh200 to buy pancakes for lunch.
â€œThey makes me feel like throwing up,â€ the 10-year-old says. â€œBut I have to eat pancakes because I feel a burning sensation in my stomach when I do not eat.â€
Hunger has intensified as food prices spiral out of control globally. For most parents, staple foods like beans, bananas and rice are now guarded treasures.
For Louis Mukasa, a jobless parent, his family eats once in two days. He says they cannot consume everything at a go because they would not have enough food.
â€œIn the past, four kilos of posho cost sh2,000, but today that amount can only buy one kilo,â€ he says.
While the Government provides free education to children who cannot afford to pay fees, it does not cater for lunch, insisting that parents should provide meals for their children.
Yet, critics say this system excludes children whose parents cannot afford to meet the cost of daily meals amidst the rising food costs.
â€œI may not have even sh1,000 sometimes,â€ a 27-year-old single mother says. â€œIf I have money, it could be for something equally important like milk for the baby.â€
Ibrahim Haswa, the deputy headteacher of Banda Primary School in Kireka says: â€œWeâ€™ve had parents asking us why the school cannot provide meals for their children.â€
At Kiswa Primary School in Bugolobi, a parent recently told her daughterâ€™s class teacher, that she did not want her child to go back to school because the school did not provide meals. But schools are also in a dilemma because they cannot provide meals unless parents pay for food.
Besides, the President has, a number of times, threatened to arrest any headteacher who charges fees for lunch under the universal primary education programme.
â€œWhen a parent doesnâ€™t send money for school lunch, what is the school supposed to do?â€ asks Patrick Ogwal, a teacher.
Some schools have secretly implement a fee for meals, so children whose parents do not pay are singled out.
Dwindling menus and rising fees
But the issue is not just affecting children in schools offering free education; even private boarding schools have had to alter their menus due to the rising food prices.
â€œWe are almost scraping some items from the menu,â€ says Sempala Kigozi, the proprietor of Aidan School in Ndejje. Kigozi says the school normally buys 12 bags of rice per term, each weighing 100kg. â€œEach bag used to cost sh72,000, but now it costs sh180,000 or 200,000. And yet you canâ€™t just double the fees,â€ Kigozi laments. Rice, he says, supplements the staple diet of posho and beans.
â€œThe easiest thing would be to replace the usual menu with items like cassava, but it is equally expensive,â€ he says.
George Ngabirwe, the headteacher of St. Peterâ€™s Boarding Primary School on Entebbe Road, says the cheapest posho costs at least sh200,000 a bag, up from about sh100,000 a year ago.
â€œSince parents donâ€™t want us to increase fees, we reduce on the amount of food each child eats,â€ Ngabirwe says.
Such policies have become a necessity for schools seeking to keep their budgets in check, while many schools have increased their lunch fee by more than sh10,000.
What system can work?
There is confusion about how best to proceed and how bad the impact may ultimately be, particularly as already cash-strapped families struggle to keep up their food production.
Enthusiasts of school feeding say if every parent was asked to pay sh1,000 per term, it would be enough to buy posho, which is just as nutritious.
What happens in other countries?
In Tanzania, the education ministry is working together with World Food Programme (WFP) to eradicate child hunger through the Food for Education Programme.
About 202,000 children are benefiting. Kenya is also having its school-going children fed by WFP with over 770,000 children benefiting, according to Marcus Prior, the agencyâ€™s regional public relations affairs officer in east and central Africa.
â€œAbout 655,000 children are vulnerable as a result of drought and high food prices. â€œTanzania and Kenya are not halting school feeding operations. We are instead scaling up,â€ Prior explains.
Recently, the WFP and the education ministry launched a countrywide campaign on â€˜pack food for lunchâ€ in a bid to sensitise parents on the benefits of lunch. The campaign also encourages families to grow more food.
The WFP country director, Stanlake Samkange, says: â€œWe are trying to help the people in northern Uganda to become self-sustaining. We shall continue giving free food to Karamoja region, but for the rest of the regions, we want them to grow food, which we can buy from them.
â€œWe are mobilising parents to give packed lunch to their children. Let us link hunger with learning and good health,â€ education minister Bitamazire advises.
Schools change diet as food prices soar