Power of food

2009-08-03 00:00

GIVING contracts to women’s co-operatives to supply state school lunches seems like an ideal way to empower people, but does it always work in practice?

That’s the question being asked by some primary school principals in and around Pietermaritzburg after new women’s co-operative groups were apparently “not ready” to start their contract at the beginning of term and a former supplier was called back in at the last minute to supply meals.

Forest Hill Primary School principal and KwaZulu-Natal chair of Naptosa (National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa) Basil Manuel, told The Witness that his school was among four in one ward advised in June by the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) district office that new local women’s co-ops were to start supplying meals on July 20.

Affected schools were required to enter into a new agreement with the co-op, chosen by the department, until March 2010, according to a June 24 letter from the NSNP office.

However, Manuel said the school’s existing supplier — a member of the Umgungundlovu Supplier Association — had to step back in at the last minute after it was reported by the NSNP district office, on July 17, the Friday before school started, that the co-operatives “were not ready”.

The school itself received no direct notification.

Forest Hill has about 900 pupils, 850 of whom rely on the daily hot meal funded by the state. Manuel said that anecdotal feedback from KZN suggests that many co-operatives are struggling and some have collapsed. “If the system is not working, why foist it upon us?” he said.

In November last year, alternative suppliers were again asked by the NSNP district office to step in to the breach left at nine schools after “problems” experienced by the Midlands Local Womens’ Co-op necessitated a suspension of their work at those schools. In a letter to the co-op from NSNP (Umgungundlovu district) assistant direc-tor L. L. Dlomo, the co-op was advised that it was being suspended until further notice “in order to allow investigations to take place”.

In the absence of feedback from the NSNP and the Education Department on the rate of success among co-operatives and other issues, The Witness established that not all co-operatives are failing. A school principal at a large urban school said the school had no problem with its co-operative — the Msunduzi Women’s Co-op — which is servicing the school.

For Manuel and other principals who have been instructed to accept unknown new co-operatives which now begin their duties in a few days’ time, there is concern about their capacity to deliver.

He said that while the union is not unhappy with the co-ops per se, it is unhappy that they do not seem to be working. “We need a new model,” he said.

The government is setting the co-operatives up for failure, said Manuel. “Even with the best of intentions, the department doesn’t have the capacity to support these co-operatives. It’s not their core responsibility,” he told The Witness.

A city primary school principal, who asked not to be identified, is also worried that having to accept the services of a co-operative chosen by the department will mean reneging on an existing year-long contract between the school and its usual supplier.

“I am really upset that the department is interfering in something that is working well,” said the principal. Two members of the new co-operative were apparently introduced to the school by a department official on Monday, a week before they are due to begin feeding pupils on August 3. Subsequent attempts during the week to contact the co-operative co-ordinator to discuss the way the scheme would work at the school, had failed, according to the principal. “I am worried about Monday,” said the principal.

Manuel said he believes that the traditional suppliers have “no resources” with which to fight what could be a breach of contract between the school and its former supplier.

Also declining to be named, a principal from another Umgungundlovu school which had been let down by a group from a local women’s co-operative earlier in the year said the school is “not confident” about the co-operatives’ ability to deliver.

Another principal praised the Education Department which, she said, gave “immediate attention” to a situation earlier in the year when a school feeding co-operative failed to deliver. An alternative supplier was quickly found to step in.

Education authorities classify schools in five categories called quintiles, with the poorest schools in quintile one.

Currently, the NSNP operates in primary schools in quintiles one, two and three. It was announced last year that the government planned to extend the scheme to high schools in quintile one in April this year. The feeding scheme was initiated by former president Nelson Mandela and is widely considered to be an effective way of enhancing school attendance, academic performance and improving the general health of pupils. The programme was relocated from the Health Department to Education in 2004.

In February, former KZN premier S’bu Ndebele said 55% of pupils in 3 760 schools are beneficiaries of the KZN programme. Six hundred and eighty eight of the schools are supplied by women co-operatives.

Training of co-operatives is a joint venture between the departments of Education and Economic Development.

No comment on the issues raised was received from the NSNP’s KZN head Ningi Ngcobo, the Education Department or Umgungundlovu Supplier Association chairwoman Pinky Mkhize.

Stop press: New co-op not ready

At the time of going to press, Basil Manuel and another city principal, who declined to be named, confirmed that they had been informed on Thursday, via the schools’ former supplier, that the women’s co-operative assigned to their schools would not, after all, be ready to start feeding pupils on Monday next week. The schools’ supplier has once again been asked by NSNP officials to continue with its services until the end of August.

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