Hungry children can’t learn

2009-04-16 00:00

Grade 10 pupil Ntombenhle Khumalo, who stays in the poor community of Kwa Swayimane, used to wake up not looking forward to going to school. Like many pupils who come from poverty-stricken families, Ntombi, as she is known to her friends, would go to school hungry, so going to school became a tedious and cumbersome experience.

Not so for her sister, Sbongile, who is in Grade 4. Even though they come from the same family, with similar socioeconomic circumstances, Sbongile always looks forward to going to school, knowing that she will be given a healthy meal at 10 am at her primary school.

With the extension of the nutrition programme to quintile one secondary schools in KwaZulu-Natal from this month, Ntombenhle’s outlook on life in general and education in particular, is about to take a turn. Like her sister, Sbongile, Ntombenhle will wake up refreshed, ready to tackle her mathematics and science.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls hunger the world’s number one public health threat, which kills more people than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Even when hunger and malnutrition don’t kill, they sap vitality and productivity. Undernutrition in young children can permanently stunt mental and physical growth, dropping IQ levels by as much as 15 points according to the latest research. Our teachers can testify that undernourishment impairs the ability to concentrate, learn and attend school regularly.The most vulnerable are the very young. Protein-deficient children do not grow to their genetic potential, while iron deficiency in young children can retard physical growth and delay cognitive development, as well as increase vulnerability to infection.

For this reason, the South African government made a decision to start school nutrition at primary school level. However, we have not forgotten the likes of Ntombenhle at our high schools. With more money being received for school nutrition we have now included the high schools in the poorest areas (quintile one) of KwaZulu-Natal. Together with primary schools in the poorest communities (quintiles one, two and three) meals are now provided to 1,7 million pupils at 4 355 schools in KwaZulu-Natal. This covers more than two thirds of all the schools in the province.

The sharp increase of approximately 1,2 million pupils at 3 090 schools in the 2004/2005 financial year to the current situation correlates with the dramatic increase in the budget allocation for the Schools Nutrition Programme, which has more than trebled from R181 million in the 2004/2005 financial year to R555 million in the 2009/2010 financial year. The number of feeding days has increased from 156 in the 2004/05 financial year to 187 days in the 2009/10 financial year.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education has also used this nutrition programme to uplift women and reduce poverty in school communities. In 2006, just over 400 women were selected, using poor socioeconomic backgrounds as criteria, to form co-operatives. These women were trained to provide meals at their children’s schools. This has now been extended to include a further 432 women (72 co-operatives), previously employed as cooks and food handlers. This brings the total to 109 women co-operatives, consisting of 839 women, as well as 1 193 small, medium and micro enterprises that are benefiting from the School Nutrition Programme (this equals 2002 families) as service providers

“Poverty is the biggest single challenge facing our nation.” Notwithstanding the many achievements and breakthroughs experienced under this government over the past 15 years, this statement, as recently articulated by the president of the ruling party, Jacob Zuma, provides a sobering reality of the many challenges we are still facing as a government.

The Education Department’s core function is teaching and learning, but it is not immune to the many challenges that our province and country still face. However, the department is doing whatever it takes to ensure that as a society we realise the ideals articulated in the Freedom Charter, of opening the doors to quality education to as many of our people as possible. Socioeconomic status shall never again be a determining factor of who has access to quality education.

• Ina Cronjé is the MEC of Education in KwaZulu-Natal.

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