Early childhood development programmes have a huge role to play in the lives of young children, including in their nutrition. In the third part of a six-part series on child hunger, Kathryn Cleary investigates the effects of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and lockdown on these programmes, and how some organisations are fighting for solutions.
“The children must eat,” says Cynthia Dwanya, a preschool teacher in the seaside village of Qolora on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. A small group of young children play on the concrete floor at Dwanya’s feet. A recently donated box of toys keeps the kids occupied while she speaks to Spotlight.
There are 20 children up to the age of five attending Nogqawuse Preschool. From the outside it does not look like much – just a simple church building that is used for the school during the week – but for these children it is a fundamental building block for the rest of their lives.
Dwanya was born and raised in Qolora and has two young children of her own in the class. Before her school there was no early childhood development (ECD) programme in the area and parents were getting worried.
With a background in social development and knowing how much early learning helps children, she started and registered the preschool as an ECD centre in 2019.
“Since I started last year, I don’t have [my own] stationary or toys,” she says.
Although she has registered the preschool, like many other ECD programmes in the country, Nogqawuse Preschool could not access any early learning subsidies. The subsidy currently stands at R17 per child per day and almost half of this money should go towards nutrition.
The provincial social development department tells Spotlight that the province currently subsidises 2 939 ECD centres. Each centre is funded for 264 days at R17 per child per day, says department spokesperson Mzukisi Solani.
The R17 subsidy comprises R7 for administration, R7 for nutrition and R3 for stimulation.
“ECD services constitute the largest intervention of government aimed at addressing child poverty and malnutrition. While the main focus of ECD is the cognitive and social development of children, it also contributes to healthy physical motor development of children aged between zero and five through providing regular and nutritious meals to young ones from poor and destitute households,” says Solani.
Without the subsidies, out of her own pocket, Dwanya buys and cooks maize porridge with margarine and sugar at home and brings it to school for the young learners. Before this the children would come to school complaining of hunger, she says.
“If the children do not eat, they will be lazy in the classroom,” she says.
While the porridge is a nutritional lifeline for these children, they endured months during the lockdown period without it. Dwanya could only restart school at the beginning of September, which means the young learners went for more than five months without school and without porridge.
“We are suffering here,” says Dwanya, telling Spotlight how hunger worsened in the community during lockdown. Now, even with the gradual easing of restrictions, she says employment and job opportunities are scarce, and providing for one’s family is a major challenge.
Making a meal out of scraps
A drive through a nearby gumtree forest takes Spotlight to another small ECD facility. This one is colourfully marked, with Mzumhle Preschool painted on the outside of a small yellow building.
During the day Novusile Mjamba welcomes about 20 children into this quaint school on the hillside.
The swing set and slide outside are popular among this community’s youngest members, a luxury that facilities like this seldom have in the area. Mjamba’s preschool reopened in August, but between April and the time that the facility reopened times were tough for these children at home.
Mjamba, like Dwanya, says there is too much hunger in the community and mothers cannot find work to support their families. Unlike Dwanya, Mjamba has no resources to provide any food for the children.
Instead, she walks with the small class each weekday to a nearby primary school to collect whatever food is left over from the school meals.
The leftover food is distributed on plates among the young children and hardly makes up enough to be called a meal, she says. But for some of these children it is the only food they will receive for the day.
Mjamba gestures to two of the children, a brother and sister.
“They will finish the plates of the other kids if there is any food left,” she says.
The mother of the siblings does not have an ID, so she cannot apply for a child support grant, says Mjamba. Without both work and a grant, hunger is a constant challenge for the family and for many others in the community. If it weren’t for the leftover food from the primary school’s meals the young children could become vulnerable to more severe forms of malnutrition.
ECD centres are pivotal to addressing nutrition
Outside of these small villages, people like Zaheera Mohamed and her colleagues at Ilifa Labantwana, a not-for-profit organisation focussed on improving the ECD sector, are working towards solutions to the problems faced by ECD providers like Dwanya and Mjamba.
“One of the key reasons [caregivers send their children to ECD centres] is that they know they’re getting proper meals. The situation we are sitting with now is that during lockdown children did not have access to those meals and the fact that the children are coming from vulnerable households where people have lost their jobs and incomes is a double whammy for these kids,” says Mohamed, the organisation’s director of ECD financing.
Mohamed tells Spotlight that the early learning subsidy reaches fewer than 700 000 children across South Africa and that other mechanisms must be put in place to better address nutrition for these children.
Registering and applying for the subsidy is one thing, says Mohamed, but getting it in the bank account is another challenge.
“We need a different strategy for [the nutrition of children aged] zero to five in early learning, rather than the subsidy – something that’s quick and agile and gets the money, food or the voucher to the site so it can quickly purchase food. The way the system works now is too precarious and very risky.
“I think that ECD programmes and any funding to ECD is a superb and appropriately targeted intervention to address nutrition for [children aged] zero to five. If we want to target nutrition ... you know where [the children] are, they need to be in ECD, it’s a sensible strategy. But the coverage is too low, so we need to do something to increase coverage to target ECD programmes to get nutrition to children,” she says.
In April, Ilifa Labantwana surveyed 8 500 ECD providers, of which 68% said they were worried that they would be unable to reopen after the lockdown. A follow-up survey in August found that only 32% of 4 500 providers could reopen their programmes. Reasons for not reopening included not being able to secure the resources needed to meet health and safety standards, not having enough money, and parents being fearful of sending their children back to school.
Children not attending ECD programmes means that providers are not receiving school fees, which, coupled with the challenges of getting subsidies, means that children are not receiving a meal and providers are struggling to stay financially viable, explains Mohamed.
“That’s what we are incredibly worried about at this point.”
Kick-starting ECD sites with a voucher system
In response to Covid-19 and lockdown’s impact on ECD programmes, Ilifa Labantwana raised close to R40 million for an intervention plan. “There were so many needs that had to be fulfilled for ECD programmes to reopen, coupled with the dire needs of children who are hungry. After lots of debate, we thought that hunger in children was something that was not tolerable and we decided to issue nutritional vouchers alongside site support packs for the programmes to reopen,” Mohamed says.
The organisation started a voucher system that provides site owners, mostly unregistered, with a code that can be redeemed for food items at a local spaza shop. This not only helps to feed children but also stimulate the local economy.
“There are many other ways to get nutrition to ECD sites in a much more agile way and we’re trying and testing the voucher as an option. We’re going to write those up and we’re hoping to present them to government,” she adds.
“You can’t leave the ECD sector to open by chance. It needs targeted intervention. There’s nothing stimulating [sites] to open, no incentives, and I think they’re dwindling away rather than coming through this crisis. Through this intervention, we’re hoping to show that with minimal support it’s enough to kick-start the sites to open because if we give them nutritional vouchers they don’t need the fees for meals.”
However, voucher intervention is not permanent and funding will only last until January or February, says Mohamed.
Pushing Parliament for ECD reform
In Parliament, more than 100 civil society, education and legal reform organisations are fighting for much-needed reform in the ECD sector. The organisations made submissions on the Children’s Amendment Bill, which serves to amend the Children’s Act.
“The Real Reform for Early Childhood Development campaign is rallying about five key reforms that we think the sector needs to have for a more enabling legal and regulatory framework that is necessary if we want to reach our goal of universal access to ECD services,” says Tess Peacock, who heads up the campaign.
According to the 2018 General Household Survey, there are more than 6 million children of ECD-going age in the country, the majority of whom live in poverty, says Peacock.
“Our analysis of the 2018 survey found that 2.4 million [children] were accessing an ECD centre, 400 000 children were in non-centre-based programmes and 3.2 million were not accessing any form of ECD programme,” she says.
“The sector has been pushing for major legal reform for more than a decade and to not see the proposed changes in the Children’s Amendment Bill was really disappointing. Not only did they not address the major challenges, but in some ways they made things worse and more confusing,” says Peacock.
“The key challenges we are facing are unattainable registration standards, a complicated dual registration process, pro-poor mechanisms in the Children’s Act that are not used and major gaps in the legislation that prevent the ECD policy from being properly implemented.”
- A one-step registration process for ECD providers and for different types of ECD providers to be regulated differently;
- For all children who need it to be able to access the government early learning subsidy;
- Simpler, adequate compliance standards;
Support to be provided to providers who cannot meet registration requirements, particularly in poor communities; and for the infrastructure needs of the sector to be supported.
With ECD having a major role to play in addressing child hunger and nutrition, Peacock says that easing barriers to registration would improve access to the early learning subsidy, although this still depends on provincial budgets.
“In July this year Stats SA produced a report announcing that six out of 10 children in South Africa were considered multidimensionally poor. It is urgent that this subsidy be extended to all children who live in households in the two poorest income quintiles if we are serious about tackling this.”
When kids go hungry is a six-part series looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. This series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards
This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.