School feeding has for years been a problem in most Universal Primary Education schools
The Education Ministry has announced it is finalizing "school feeding and nutrition guidelines" which will principally mandate parents to contribute towards feeding their children.
The draft guidelines require parents or guardians of school children to part with minimal amounts of funds (or to make contributions in kind) just so lower learning institutions can provide proper feeding and the country's reduce the country's malnutrition levels which stand at 35%.
Santa Ojok, the principal education officer (basic education) at the ministry said: "We are asking parents to contribute something so their children don't spend the whole day on empty stomachs."
"Parents who can't contribute money can contribute food (agreed on at PTA meetings) or alternatively pack lunch for the children," the education officer said at a nutrition sensitization meeting organized by Fresh Dairy at Kitante Primary School in Kampala this week.
School feeding has for years been a problem in most Universal Primary Education (UPE) schools in the country.
Millions of pupils go hungry every school day in the country, and Government insists it is the responsibility of parents to provide them with lunch.
However, research by the World Food Programme demonstrates that under-nutrition can affect a child's behavior, school performance and overall cognitive development.
Government has now come up with new guidelines, relaxing the earlier ones which banished payment of lunch fees.
Under the new guidelines, readied after passing of a Cabinet memo (on lunch fees), Government says parents should pack lunch for their children or alternatively contribute a modest amount of money for lunch.
Under the guidelines, districts have been given powers by the education minister to pass by-laws providing suitable penalties to parents who default contributing to school feeding.
Lunch fees or food contributions will be made per school term (three times a year) or monthly, if preferred by individual school governing bodies.
In case of direct food contributions, she said; "actual food quantities contributed per child will be agreed upon in the school governing body meetings and approved by the district or other local council authority".
The First Lady and Minister for Education Janet Museveni has been passionate on several fora, asking parents to pack food for children.
"It is not alright for a child to spend a whole day without eating. It is our responsibility as their parents or guardians to pack some food they can eat so they can concentrate and stay healthy," she said at the release of the primary teacher examination results at the Office of the Prime Minister last week.
Some parents also welcomed the guidelines. Joan Nakirijja from Kampala said providing meals was part of the minimum any parent can do for their children.
At the meeting which was attended by pupils, teachers, parents and other stakeholders, paediatrician and adolescent health expert Dr. Sabrina Kitaka said malnutrition in children because of poor feeding habits still stood at about 32%.
"The statistic has improved from 42%, but still it is not what we desire. We don't want to see any of our children stunted because they are not eating a balanced diet.
When children don't eat a balanced diet or skip meals consistently, it affects their growth. They can be stunted and may not fully concentrate at school. And depending on particular nutrients they are lacking, it could also affect their bone development (if lacking calcium) or trigger onset of anemia (if lacking iron)" Kitaka said.
She said many malnourished children in the country lacked body building proteins and energy giving carbohydrates.
Fresh Dairy's marketing director Oliver Mary said they planned to visit 350 schools across the country to talk about malnutrition dangers.
"Children and parents need to know these things: that when they (children) go hungry, it affects the children's development," he said.
Some of the pupils at the primary school were given Fresh Dairy products, which contain most of the food nutrients, including Iron, Calcium, Vitamin B and fats etc.
Head teacher Jane Semugoma commended Fresh Dairy's initiative and asked parents to "not send children to school when they had not packed for them something to eat."
"When children have not eaten they are so miserable. Apart from the danger of not concentrating, hunger slows their physical development and growth. Children need all round care. They need to eat at the same time to exercise," she said.
Francis Ssenabulya, head teacher St Peters Primary School Nsambya
"Children must have a meal at school because they cannot learn on an empty stomach. How that food can be provided is what we need to look at. The First Lady has been proposing that parents buy (food) flasks. And I think she is right. You cannot pack food for children in kaveera. It is unhealthy and will go bad by lunchtime. So, if you cannot buy a flask to pack food for the children (and we know the dangers of flasks and young pupils: they can break) contribute some little amount so schools can prepare the lunch. We have done some calculations, in consultation with UNATU (Uganda National Teachers Union), parents in urban areas can pay a minimal sh70,000 per term towards feeding. Seventy thousand divide by 12 weeks, that is about sh5000 a week and sh1000 per day. You cannot get a plate of food in Kampala at sh1000 today. So, it is reasonable. And it shouldn't be a responsibility of government to feed children. We are making parents lazy. I have been to Europe and to the US. In these developed countries, parents pack food for the children or give them some little money so they can buy food at canteens. But, here, in a developing country, we want government to provide food, free scholastic materials, free sanitary pads. I think we are asking too much (from government)."