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School Feeding Programme: A Promise of hope

School Feeding

Fri, 18 Jan 2008 Source: Ossei, Nana Yaw

?Providing a meal at school is a simple but concrete way to give poor children a chance to learn and thrive?.

?But on empty stomachs, they become easily distracted and have problems concentrating on their schoolwork. They become better students when their bodies are well nourished and healthy. The incentive of getting a meal also reduces absenteeism. Most importantly, performance improves and drop-out rates decreases?.


Health and education are two of the cornerstones of human capital and form the basis of an individual?s economic productivity. They also help to keep a country?s economy healthy and to create a literate society. There is considerable evidence that education plays a central role in empowering women, which in turn is linked to numerous long term benefits such as smaller family sizes and increased agricultural production. The school feeding programme falls squarely within the ambit of the UN declaration, and at least three of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), namely to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, to achieve universal primary education and to promote gender equality and empower women. The New Partnership for Africa?s Development (NEPAD), a vision and strategic framework adopted by African leaders in 2001, refers to education as an important step in reviving prosperity on the continent. For me, the school feeding programme could be the key to achieving these goals because; it brings many synergies that support each other. There are several spin-offs and these kinds of activities must be encouraged.


When parents are deciding to send their children to primary school, they must weigh the long-term benefit of education against the short-term costs of school fees and loss of the child?s labour. Governments can change the cost-benefit calculation in favour of school enrolment in several ways. They can offer school feeding (a meal or snack served at school), food for schooling (a ration of food that goes home to families that enrol children in school), cash for schooling (cash given to such families), or more than one of these options. The school feeding programme is by far the most common of these programmes, but all act as transfers of resources to poor families. Simply put, the school feeding programme in conjunction with the capitation grant programme offers poor children an opportunity to attend school. Education is by far the surest way of getting out of poverty. The school feeding programme in Ghana have increased children?s nutritional status, improved school attendance, increased school enrolment, and retention, and more recently, addressing community health problems.

With regard to enrolment, school feeding programme has impacted positively in increasing the enrolment of girls who in times of economic crisis or emergencies are usually the first to be withdrawn from school in order to assist with sibling care and to generate income. Girls are most likely not to attend school and the school feeding programme has helped and continues to help in closing the educational gap between boys and girls which brings benefits society wide.


The benefits of increasing the enrolment and retention of girls are enormous. It has been shown that, girls who go to school are likely to marry later, and have on average 2.9 children as opposed to 6.5 for uneducated girls. For every year of additional schooling for a girl, there is a resulting 5-10% decrease in mortality among her children. Empirically, educated girls are more productive in earning a livelihood coupled with improved nutritional status of their future children. The school feeding programme has increased student?s academic performance and parents also reported that, their children were livelier and happier and had greater interest in their studies than before. Given that most poor people in Ghana live in rural areas and earn livelihoods in the agricultural sector, the school feeding programme is now being seen as a mechanism for jump-starting local agriculture. Linking school feeding directly with agricultural development is providing local farmers with the opportunity to sell their produce to participating schools. This has provided market incentives to farmers to grow more. They also save money as they do not have to travel far to markets. The school feeding programme is helping small and marginal farmers increase and diversify their production by providing a reliable market for their produce. The skills and knowledge that farmers have developed in regards to improved varieties and group marketing will enable them to take advantage of other markets for their goods including export markets. It is important to make sure that conditions are in place so that farmers can increase production. If farmers cannot produce more food to supply the school feeding programme, the new demand for food created by these programs will push up local food prices, thus cutting into poor people?s food budget. Higher food prices could even cause poor farmers to keep their own children out of school to help with farm work.

In addition to boosting student nutrition and providing farmers with local market, the school feeding programme is improving the economic welfare of local community members. The school feeding programme in Ghana has thus far created over 12,000 jobs. Many now have jobs processing and cooking food for students. With expansion of the school feeding programme in the next couple of years, I am confident more jobs will be created. It is absolutely important that, those employed under the school feeding programme are captured by SSNIT and the tax authorities. Whilst meeting their civic responsibility of paying taxes, they will also be able to save towards a pension under SSNIT to aid them in years to come. This will invariably help government mobilise domestic revenue to finance her developmental agenda.

Whilst school meals are an incentive for school attendance, it should be borne in mind that some of the difficulties of access to school are in fact infrastructural. For example, bad roads, inadequate or expensive transport, and the chores that many children have to perform each day before they go to school commonly prevent children from attending school particularly in rural areas. What happens at home may prevent children from attending school hence, a holistic approach is needed. School feeding appears to be uniquely positioned as a platform from which nutrition, education, health and agricultural interventions can flow. Nonetheless, can school feeding meet the high expectations it has generated? Perhaps yes-with enough planning, coordination, and money.

THE WAY FORWARD.

The time has arisen for the school feeding programme to get legislative backing to ensure continuity and its sustainability irrespective of the government in power. Not only does it create legitimacy of the programme but it also shows government?s commitment of meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Funding, of course is key. Alternative financing and cost options for school feeding need to be identified. Currently, the Ghana government provides 50 percent of the total amount and the Dutch government provides 50 percent. Aid will not last forever hence; the government should be looking at innovative ways in funding school feeding on her own in the event of our donor partner pulling out. I am aware that, government budgets are stretched so raising the funds required could be difficult. Yet a failure to support such a programme can impose its own costs in terms of illiteracy, malnutrition, and poverty. I propose that, government look seriously at taxing a small percentage of foreign remittances to specifically fund school feeding or alternatively, a fraction of the proposed airtime tax can be used to finance the school feeding programme. Through tax incentives such as tax holidays, big corporations can also help in sponsoring the school feeding programme. After 50 years of independence, certain programmes should be owned and driven by Ghanaians. There should not be a universal coverage of school feeding but rather, the programme should target poor areas where enrolment and attendance are lowest and where the value of food is sufficient to attract children to school. School feeding must be integrated into a broader package that includes the promotion of balanced nutrition, clean water and high sanitary standards. These issues should form part of an educational reform programme that must include teacher training, curriculum reform and student assessment.

Mechanisms and processes must be instituted in order to facilitate better coordination between the Ministry of Education, District Assemblies, School Feeding Programme Secretariat and Ministry of Agriculture. In regards to jump-starting local agriculture through school feeding programme, processes must be instituted to ensure that the Ministry of Agriculture is involved in ensuring the broadening of school feeding principles and objectives. Among the most important conditions to put in place are irrigation, infrastructure and rural roads. Once farmers have access to irrigation, they are more likely to adopt other agricultural technologies that will raise production, like fertilisers, credit and improved seeds. Rural roads will help farmers transport these needed supplies to their farms as well as transport their agricultural goods to schools, processing facilities, and markets.

Government should make concerted efforts in improving educational facilities and infrastructure because; school feeding only improves learning when food is accompanied by other inputs related to teaching quality. Government should ensure that, quantitative growth in education at all levels is accompanied by improvements in quality. This calls for significant improvement in teacher training programmes and in the overall status and welfare of teachers. It also calls for innovative and collaborative efforts in the production of textbooks and other learning materials aimed at improving quality and reducing cost. Increased enrolment and attendance in contexts where classroom sizes are already unmanageable may in fact be counter-intuitive for already overworked teachers and educational authorities. I do admit that, this government has provided more educational facilities and student-pupil ratio has fallen from 40:1 to 35:1 as at 2007. As much as I commend government, there is still more room for improvement.

Getting children into school is only half the battle. To benefit from schooling, children need to actually attend school on a consistent basis, yet illness keeps thousands of school children at home. Food alone is not enough but rather you need a combination of food, health and care. Nutrition education and iron supplements are also widely seen as better school based nutrition interventions and a regular de-worming exercise also improves schooling outcomes.

Active community participation is often cited as missing in many school feeding programmes and is integral part of the NEPAD approach. Significant community mobilisation and cooperation is needed to broaden the scope of school feeding. Through community participation, school feeding should be de-centralised with emphasis on community ?ownership? which will invariably increase the sustainability of the programme. If projects are based on the communities? needs and are appropriate to their local environment, people will be committed to their success and long-term maintenance. Communities should be involved from the start from planning, through building, to managing and maintaining the programmes. Communities can make available appropriate labour and time for putting up infrastructures such as kitchens, dining areas etc. The dissemination of school feeding information on an ongoing basis is another key strategy for involving people and maintaining interest. Some of the most useful information sharing techniques includes project update presentations to the community via market women, village elders, traditional councils, local councils, churches, mosques etc. The involvement of women is very crucial because, women are key participants in successful projects. The Ministry of Education, Ghana Education Service, School Feeding Programme Secretariat and District Assemblies should have a coordinated strategy and policy in facilitating the re-entry of drop-outs to increase school completion. If school feeding and the accompanying interventions live up to their promise, the result could be better lives for millions of school children in Ghana. After all, good health and good education are not only ends in themselves, but it also provides individuals with the chance to lead productive and satisfying lives. I congratulate the NPP government for having the vision and foresight in introducing the school feeding programme and kudos to Dr. Amoako Tuffour and his coordinators for the successful implementation and management of the school feeding programme thus far.

NANA YAW OSSEI.
LONDON.


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.


Columnist: Ossei, Nana Yaw