Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s recent announcement that the Buhari administration plans to revive the school feeding programme across public schools in the country has met with its share of public debate and conjecture. Osinbajo has been repeatedly quoted as saying that the “one meal a day” school feeding program being proposed by the Nigerian government will attract N980 billion in investment, will create jobs, and will boost the agricultural sector. We applaud his bold declaration, recognizing the need to put in place a social safety net for our children and communities. It is a step in the right direction. We look forward to details on how this programme will be implemented in a way that truly addresses the core concerns of a society where about 11 million children under the age of five are stunted.
School feeding undoubtedly has political, educational and socio-economic benefits. It positions the government as a caring, considerate body coming to the plight of the nation’s children, regardless of the fact that school children under the UBEC Act has for many years included a right to at least one nutritious school meal a day, which has widely been ignored. It provides farmers with a niche market in which to sell their produce, and creates jobs for those who will prepare, supervise and serve the meals. It is potentially a win-win situation for both government and the people.
Buried beneath the politics of the school feeding programme is an important lifeline, which is that school feeding has potentially huge health benefits. If the government does follow through on its plan to re-introduce the school feeding program, the impact on the health of children will probably bring the biggest long term benefit for Nigeria, and will address some of the developmental challenges that children face in Nigeria. It is also an opportunity to deliver other primary health promotion interventions that will prepare our children to develop positive healthy habits and practices and become the leaders of a new Nigeria.
Why is feeding children in school good for Nigeria’s public health?
UNICEF recently announced that 1,000 children die daily in Nigeria from malnutrition. 1,000 Nigerian children a day. Common health problems in children, such as worm infections, iron deficiency and anaemia, to name a few, result in absenteeism from school, which inevitably affects the quality of education a child receives. School feeding, when combined with other interventions such as deworming and fortifying the nutrients in school meals improves health, and reduces the need to be out of school due to illness.
For many children, especially for children living in poor communities cross Nigeria, where school meals exist, they are often the only regular and nutritious meals they receive. When school meals are combined with deworming children and micronutrient fortification, the evidence suggests that children attend school more regularly, stay in school, understand their lessons, and are able to perform much better in school. The education system allows for simple, cost-effective delivery of nutritious meals and health interventions in school settings, where teachers can also be leveraged to promote good health practices in children. Improved health in children also means improved education outcomes, and a cadre of children equipped to take Nigeria forward. This is why it is so important for our collective future.
Haven’t we been this way before? What needs to change?
The Nigerian government attempted to put in place a nationwide school feeding programme in 2005. Except for in a few states, most notably in Osun, the attempt was an undeniable failure. There are several reasons for this, including that the programme at the time employed contractors to provide meals to the schools, and most states failed to provide the counterpart funding to the Federal government’s grants that were required to initiate the programme. Unfortunately, as has become a well-worn mantra, politics, mismanagement of funds, and lack of accountability took its toll on the programme.
Between 2005 and 2014, there have been a few other attempts at school feeding programmes funded mainly by organizations or state governments, with some programmes doing very well.
Do we have an effective school feeding programme model?
Yes. We do. Here in Nigeria, there are states and organizations that have done a lot of groundwork and are implementing functioning school feeding programmes. These programs have used varied approaches but have all built in sustainability mechanisms that the Federal government should pay keen attention to as it works towards delivering an effective school feeding programme in Nigeria. There is no need to re-invent the wheel when you can replicate what is already working.
Back in March of this year, we highlighted a school feeding programme in Enugu and Anambra states that was introduced and designed by the Pan African Community Initiative for Education and Health (PACIEH) to do exactly what the federal government is hoping to achieve. PACIEH founder and CEO, Prof. Uche Amazigo is a passionate advocate for resource poor communities, and was the 2012 Laureate of the Prince Mahidol Award, one of the highest public health honors given by the Kingdom of Thailand. She used the funds from that award to launch PACIEH, and the NGO has also received funding and support from Nigerian Breweries‘ Heineken African Foundation, Tru Valu, and most recently, the Enugu State Universal Education Board (ENSUBEB).
The PACIEH programme intervened in two resource poor schools in Enugu State and one in Anambra State. The PACIEH team includes nutritionists, doctors, and public health specialists who have worked together to develop a school feeding intervention that caters for the whole child. PACIEH’s interventions in Abatete (Anambra), Eke and Oma-Eke (Enugu) have demonstrated that a viable, sustainable and scalable school health and feeding programme with public and private sector support is possible in our context. It advocates for a community-directed and management approach as the most efficient/resourceful mechanism to facilitate the programme.
Last month, PACIEH hosted the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand to Nigeria, His Excellency Mr. Chailert Limsomboon, as well as other partners, in a study tour of its schools in Enugu and Anambra. The Kingdom of Thailand is well known for its robustly successful social safety net programmes, most notably its Universal Health Coverage.
From 1982 to 1986, the Kingdom of Thailand put in place a nutrition policy that linked malnutrition to poverty alleviation and rural development and incorporated the primary health care approach, with greater emphasis on community participation. Included in this policy was the provision of subsidies for school lunch in rural primary schools. As a result, it has reduced its poverty rates from 27 percent in 1990 to 9.8 percent in 2002 and the proportion of underweight children in Thailand also fell by nearly half in the same period.
Ambassador Limsomboon said during an interview on the PACIEH study tour that “Thailand realized that to solve its problems it could not rely on external help, it had to rely on itself.” There is no better nugget of wisdom for the Nigerian government as it seeks to implement a “home-grown” school feeding programme.
Fortunately there is a growing consensus on this. At the just concluded UNGA in New York, Zouera Youssoufor, the CEO or the Dangote Foundation announced that nutrition for women and children will be a key focus area for the Foundation moving forward. In June 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new $776 million investment in nutrition.
We must build a self-reliant, sustainable foundation for our children’s health. Our future depends on it.