Nine million hungry children: We ask Section27 five questions about school feeding scheme

Tendai Mafuma of Section27. (Supplied)
Tendai Mafuma of Section27. (Supplied)
  • The Gauteng High Court forced the basic education department to introduce the national school feeding scheme. 
  • The programme was halted in March when schools were first closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 
  • News24 spoke to Section27 which brought the application opposing the department's introduction of the programme.  

The Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, in the middle of July, ordered the Department of Basic Education to reintroduce the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) to all learners.

The department halted the programme - which feeds an estimated nine million pupils across the country weekly - in March when the government first closed schools, as the global coronavirus pandemic hit. 

The case against the department was brought by non-profit organisations Section27 and  Equal Education which had repeatedly called for the programme to be reintroduced. 

News24 spoke to Section27 legal researcher Tendai Mafuma about what happened when the national lockdown was enforced, why the feeding scheme is important, and the way forward. 

What happened in March when the national lockdown was announced?

So basically, I think schools closed before we actually went into lockdown. And once schools closed, the department suspended the National School Nutrition Programme, and was not feeding any of the learners. And we tried to reach out to them and what the department said was that ordinarily, during school vacations, the programme doesn't run and the Department of Social Development kind of takes over and ensures that learners receive food, maybe from community halls, etc.

So, what we understood by that was that when schools are open, then the programme would resume. That it would resume for all the learners who ordinarily benefit from it - regardless of whether they are the grades have been phased back into or not.

So when schools reopened, we found out that the programme had only been reinstated for the grades that had been phased back to school. So that was Grade 7 and Grade 12. And all the other learners would continue to not have food unless they were phased back into school.

So then we continued our communications with the department and said to them: "Actually, that's not how it should work. You have an obligation to make sure that all these learners receive a meal. And we have all these policies, some of them coming from the department itself that says how important that one meal is for a lot of these learners. And because for a lot of them, it is the only meal that they have during the day. And so it is unreasonable and it's and justifiable for you to not open up this programme for all the learners." And the department just kind of stuck to his to its guns. 

So, how many pupils are we talking about that was affected by this and what is it what is the practical effect on their lives? 

So, the practical effect is first the programme provides food to over nine million learners in the country. And so, from the day that schools closed under Covid, some of the learners actually depend on this one meal every day. That's the only meal that they have, or if they're going to have anything else at home, it is like morsels and it's really to supplement what they're getting at school. So that meal is very important.

The programme is really designed to alleviate poverty and make sure that learners are getting some kind of nutrition. And, and so obviously, the effects were devastating. I think, the impact was worsened by the fact that a lot of caregivers lost the income that they normally would have because they could not do their normal trade or go to work.

So there was even less money to spend on food in the family. And you know, so that means it was even less food in the family in that one meal. It's helpful in supplementing whatever little that the families had. 

So Section27 and Equal Education, we are in various provinces and we contacted quite a number of learners and just trying to find out what the impact had been. So, I think there were these two siblings who are in Limpopo, their mother lives in Gauteng, she's been trying to find a job and she sends them R500 a month. So, when they can get a meal, they can stretch the R500 a little bit further, but when they don't, that's all they have for an entire month and all they could purchase was a bag of mielie meal with no gravy, nothing else for an entire month.

In some families there are siblings, one is in Grade 12 and she's gone back to school and the other one is in Grade 3. So, the one is back at school and is able to get a meal. But there's just like a lot of guilt associated with having to at least have a meal at school when you know when you're going back home, your little brother who was in Grade 1, hasn't had anything to eat. So I think the impact was like really huge, psychologically as well for the learners and for their families.

Was any provision made to feed learners during the lockdown? 

I think the important thing to add, actually, that the Treasury had actually amended the conditional grant for the national schools programme. And what is it has said is that, when schools are closed, provinces may come up with a plan to feed the learners when they're out of school. So learners don't necessarily have to go to school to get a meal every day.

A child gets fed at school.

There's been a provision that, you know, departments can use their creativity to see how they can reach learners, and one of the examples is that they can put together R170 worth of hampers that they can give to learners. And I guess this can be a hamper that they can cook at home, so be it beans and samp or whatever. So, we were really hoping that, as such provisions have been, they would really apply their minds to how they can reach the learners better, instead of just saying to them, "come to school and get a meal", when other things could be done. 

Why would you think the department was hesitant to open this school feeding programme?

So the department hasn't really, you know, in their communication to us, all the letters that they wrote, they did not say why they were not going to open for all the learners. Definitely, I think there are concerns about logistics and keeping the learners safe from the department's perspective. But what in fact happened was, when the department was planning the reopening of schools, they had considered those things and they even came up with a standard operating procedure for ensuring that the programme is opened and delivered safely to learners. So, all of those things had been considered by the department. But for some reason, when it came to opening schools, they just decided that they would only open it for the learners who had been phased back into school.

What is going to happen going forward? 

So, what the court ruled was first a declaration that, you know, the nutrition programme is important and it's vital for education. And then it also made a supervisory order, when there court basically supervises to make sure that the department is doing what it's supposed to be doing.

And these kind of orders are hardly given because of the separation of powers issue. So it's an order that's really given where a court has seen that the executive has really dropped the ball on the obligation. And they now want to monitor to ensure that they implementing the order. 

So, every 10 days, the national and provincial departments health have been ordered to report on the progress of implementing the National School Nutrition Program to the court. So we're expecting the fifth report to be submitted this Friday. But we're also monitoring the schools so that we represented to ensure that this is actually is happening on the ground, so we can check whatever reports we're getting against what the department reports to the court.

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