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Hunger pangs in primary schools! Are we on track to save pupils?

By Conan Businge

Added 2nd March 2016 04:38 PM

As Uganda joined the rest of Africa to celebrate the first Africa Day for School Feeding; several children from humble back grounds like Otim should be remembered as some of those that are crumbling under the burden of failing to have lunch at school.

Hunger pangs in primary schools! Are we on track to save pupils?

Pupils in one of the UPE schools sitting on the floor during a lesson. Many study on empty stomachs or feed on fruits like mangoes for lunch. Photos/ File

As Uganda joined the rest of Africa to celebrate the first Africa Day for School Feeding; several children from humble back grounds like Otim should be remembered as some of those that are crumbling under the burden of failing to have lunch at school.

MICHAEL Otim is about 12 years of age. He does not know his exact age, but this year is his first year at school; in Gulu- one of the remotest districts of Northern Uganda.

His mother, a single parent, with more other three siblings of Otim, is five miles away from this school. She believes that the success of the family lies in raring animals.

Now that the animals are all dead, it just looks the ripe time for Otim to step in class. But, there is another wave threatening his stay at school. "My mother thinks it is a luxury to pack food for lunch, at school."   He carries a three-litre jerrycan of water, as his survival ‘meal' for lunch, at school.

As Uganda joined the rest of Africa to celebrate the first Africa Day for School Feeding; several children from humble back grounds like Otim should be remembered as some of those that are crumbling under the burden of failing to have lunch at school.

They study on empty stomachs for the whole day, and this, according to the education ministry and other studies, partly explains why the quality of education is still wanting in the country.

On his hungriest days, Otim says, he looks at the blackboard without understanding anything. He listens, but hears only a howling sound in his ears. But he is not ready to give in. He wants to fight hard to break through. But the daily hunger, has already affected his grades in class, and is contemplating to stop in primary seven.

"It is not going to be easy continuing like this in secondary school life, since there is also free education! I may not continue with the battle," he sadly contemplates.

Turn of events

But, in 2014, there was a turn of events which is likely to improve the situation. Government came up with a new directive; relaxing its earlier tighter forbidding the payment of lunch fees.

Under the new directives, after a Cabinet memo on lunch fees was passed in 2014, Government insisted that pupils' parents should pack lunch for their children or alternatively contribute a modest amount of money for lunch.

"But this money should be agreed on by Parents and Teachers Associations, School management committees or governing councils of schools; and not head teachers," says the education minister Maj. Jessica Alupo.

But, she is also aware that, two years down the road after issuing the new guidelines, the journey is not any clearer; on the provision of meals in schools. She says there are instead illegal charges

"We forbid teachers collecting or even managing these funds. This is a new and clear directive. We do not want these funds to be mismanaged and that is why we want the school management committees or associations to run the funds for lunch," she warns.

She says that, the education and sports ministry, is already coming out with a framework; to guide schools all over the country on how much should be charged and how the funds must be controlled.

But, she hastily adds that, the option for paying the lunch fees should only be used in cases where pupils or students cannot pack their own food from their homes.

The issuing of new guidelines in 2014 followed a memo which was presented to Parliament. The memo had been prepared by the education ministry, proposing eight options for providing lunch to school going children.

The options included maintaining the parents' provision of packed lunch, children returning home for lunch, parents giving their children money to buy snacks, voluntary cash contributions by parents or alternatively parents cultivating communal land to provide schools with food.

The other alternatives included - Government providing meals to all pupils, or alternatively changing the school time table so that children can study up to lunch time and later go home.  

Before presenting it to Cabinet, the education ministry and World Food Programme had done studies on school feeding alternatives, results of which they sent to the finance ministry for costing.


Implications of hunger at school

Could hunger really be eating down the stems of free education in this country? Experts, parents, educationists and government say it is.

Research, done by the World Food Programme, demonstrates that under-nutrition can affect a child's behavior, school performance and overall cognitive development. "Even when a child misses one meal, behavior and academic performances are affected. A hungry child has difficulty in learning."

For a school age child, missing breakfast can lead to fatigue and a diminished attention span. "While the body adjusts to decreased blood sugar levels, the brain struggles to perform its function with a minimal supply of nutrients," the study shows.

 Food nutritionists explain that children  up to the age of ten need to eat every four to six hours to maintain a blood sugar concentration high enough to support the activity of the brain and the nervous system.

Most teachers can quickly identify those children who come to school without breakfast. Their heads are on their desks at 10am- the peak learning hours. Chronic poor nutrition may cause more serious learning deficits, for children.

The 2006 World Hunger series report 2006 shows that several interventions have proven effective at increasing schools' enrolment and attendance. School feeding involves providing a meal or a snack to students during the school day.

"The meal acts as an incentive to attend school, explains a teacher in Amuru Samuel Opolot, leading to increased school enrolment-particularly for girls.  In Bangladesh, a school feeding programme involving 6,000 schools, raised enrolment by 14.2 percent.

The Global Food for Education programme reported that enrolment increased on average on average by 10.4 percent and by 11.7 percent for girls-in the 4,000 schools surveyed.  Other studies have found positive results in Peruvian Andes, Malawi and India.

"Deficiency in balanced diet leads to reduced cognitive function," says Dr Matthew Jukes, a developmental psychologist at Oxford University.

Observing the value of a balanced diet towards academic performance, Jukes says: "When children go to school without breakfast, their performance goes down." Even then, under-fed children enroll later in school and they are likely candidates for poor performance and dropping out of school.

Children who are hungry at school are likely to develop a short memory span and have difficulties in concentrating and performing complex tasks even later in life, according to nutritionists. Then one can only just imagine what can happen to children who miss life, but have to sit in the dusty, hot and congested classroom floors in some parts on the country.

These children are like all other human beings, City parents' Head teacher Martin Isaga says, who need food for proper work to be attained. "Without food, learning can never be effective. Learning should move with proper feeding."

Who is responsible?

Otim's mother says Gulu district-where she stays, is infertile for food production. She keeps bees, as a source of livelihood. But she does not believe in the government law, which requires her to pack food for Otim and his siblings when going to school.

The law, with Otim's mother does not believe in, is clearly cut out in the Education Act 2008. It places the responsibility of providing food for school children in their parents' and guardians' hands.

More so, the education and sports guidelines on policy, on stakeholders' responsibilities in the Universal Primary Education, say: "Parents need to make a crucial contribution to the basic child nurturing and support through the provision of mid-day meals, for pupils at school."

Asked about this legislation, Otim's mother laughs uncontrollably and scans the press team, in amusement. "This government is just not serious. How do you expect a region like mine (Northern Uganda) to have parents with enough food to pack for their children? It is just not practical. We have been in camps because of the war!"

Food scarcity

Karamoja is said to be in a deeper ditch of food scarcity. After years of drought, the soil is a little more than sand. Goats and cattle are gaunt due to the bad pastures, and the sorghum crop is failing. Armed cattle rustlers roam the region, making the roads too dangerous for most travel.

The trouble of food insecurity is not only in northern Uganda, but the whole country.  With 31 percent of Ugandans living below the poverty line, and is one of the countries at the highest hunger risk, on the continent.

With food production declining and prices rising worldwide, hunger has again become a major threat to poor countries.

This has completely altered the tradition where parents were forced to pay fees by the schools. Most parents nowadays, are not ready to pack food, or even pay fees; following the free education offered by government.

Peter Tusubira, a retired teacher explains:  "It is good idea for government to feed the pupils, but if they cannot; then parents should do it. I just don't agree the system where all children get food from their homes.

"I don't believe in bringing different types of food at school. Some of them even feel embarrassed to open their containers, because of the food they packed."

"Government does not have funds to feed all children in schools. Parents are mandated and expected to pack food for their children. They should not pay lunch fees to schools directly, because some head masters might use it a loophole to repeat charging fees, indirectly."

President Yoweri Museveni has a number of times, also threatened to arrest any head teacher charging fees in government primary schools.

Quick exit

"If the government really want to improve the chances of educational success," opinioned a local councilor in Lira, " it has to wake up and should be  willing to invest more in healthcare, jobs and other support systems for the country's children and families."

He could be right! The link between poverty, hunger and poor school performance is well-documented and sensible - how can children learn when their focus is on their stomachs?

Compared with food-secure children and adolescents, the Bio-Medicine (an online science website) survey shows that children from food-insecure families are five times more likely to attempt suicide, four times more likely to suffer from chronic, low-grade depression (dysthymia). They were also almost twice as likely to have been suspended from school, and were 1.4 times more likely to repeat a class.

But a question still lingers. If parents cannot commit themselves to packing food for their children, why can't a uniform fee, be levied on all parents for lunch facilitation, countrywide?

Whereas no fees are paid in public primary schools, access and retention in school are being influenced by a child's characteristics, including aptitude, motivation and behaviour. These are being suffocated by lack of food and poor nutritional status.

Despite the high profile given to the free primary education, millions of school-age-children are excluded, are dropping out because they lack food.

In Uganda, government has taken a bold stand: Parents must pack lunch for their children. But are the parents capable of doing this, in an economy where some people can hardly even pay for the cheapest medical bills?

Stunting and malnutrition are ‘eating away' many pupils' academic performance, enrolment, retention, concentration in class, attendance and the overall schooling achievement. Where could we be going? Ends

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