|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 October 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
'Too much to ask'?
Every day of the past week, eight-year-old Amna Selim was given the same firm instructions by her mother before going off to school: "If they give you any biscuits, don't eat them, no matter how hungry you are. Don't forget how ill you got last time."
Not that Amna needs reminding. It was only on Saturday, after munching on a biscuit subsidised by the government for pupils attending state primary school, that she fell seriously ill and had to be transported from her school at the shantytown of Arab Abu Said, south of Helwan, to Al-Saff hospital, four kilometres away.
"I ate the biscuit they give us at school and then I felt really sick. After I vomited at the hospital, I was okay," Amna said. On that day, 180 primary and preparatory pupils became sick after eating school meals; some were in serious condition and had to be transported to the same hospital.
A hospital nurse said the children were brought in "looking very pale, some vomiting and suffering from diarrhea, and some needing immediate stomach treatment." The worst thing, said the nurse who spoke on condition of anonymity, is that the pupils got very frightened and there were some hysterical parents who were called to the hospital without being told what was wrong with their children. "Every year, we get cases of school kids getting poisoned because of those sordid biscuits, but never on this scale. When are we going to see a stop to this?" the nurse asked.
Gamal Mohamed, headmaster of the primary school, insisted that it was not the school's fault. "We get the biscuits delivered daily from the factory; we check the production and expiry dates; we open one or two packets and taste the biscuits and we then distribute them to the children. Those biscuits did not seem at all unusual on that day."
Parents saw it differently. The next day, a group stormed the school, outraged, shouting at the headmaster: "We send you our children to get educated and they end up being poisoned."
Mohamed said the angered pupils stomped on the biscuits. "We spent a whole day cleaning up, and then we burned all the remaining biscuits," he said.
The school has never before faced this problem, said Mohamed, but he could see why it happened. "Until last year, the manufacturing company had to go through a Health Ministry examination, which then sends the food to the school after it has made sure it is fine. This year, the Education Ministry decided that the meals should go directly from the manufacturing company to the schools. The meals consist of an 80-gramme biscuit given to each primary student, and a wedge of cheese and yoghurt to each preparatory student. "This year the biscuits were delivered to our school from the Islamic Company for Biscuits and Confectionery without the biscuits going in for examination first. This is where the problem is; the food is not examined before it is delivered to schools. What can we do? We don't have a doctor for the 3,000 pupils here, let alone a laboratory to test food."
Mohamed is one of many who has a deep mistrust of private companies, which he thinks are constantly seeking to maximise their profit. "Why couldn't we contract with respectable state manufacturers instead?" he asked.
Arab Abu Said was not the only school to be affected. Almost 2,000 pupils in seven governorates became sick after eating their school meals. Dr Mohamed El-Guindi, head of the emergency unit at Mansoura hospital, said that he received 129 girls and boys under the age of 12 who fell sick after eating the infamous school biscuit. They were held in hospital for a few hours before being released. El-Guindi believes they were suffering from a bacteria-like microbe called aphlatoxin. "In moderate amounts, it doesn't do any harm, but in excess, it is harmful. Excessive aphlatoxin occurs in food that is stored for too long in unhealthy conditions and in high levels of humidity. I believe that this is probably what happened with the biscuits; they were stored in improper conditions," he said.
Minister of Education Hussein Bahaeddin said that the companies which distributed the sub-standard food in all seven governorates will be prosecuted. The maximum punishment is three years in prison -- that is, if the food poisoning actually led to a death. After news of the food poisoning broke out, Bahaeddin announced that the distribution of school meals will not be stopped because 50 per cent of pupils suffer from anaemia and 25 per cent of malnutrition.
Bahaeddin, a pediatrician by profession, visited the hospitals where the sick children were being treated and examined some of the children himself.
In theory, the biscuits are supposed to be fortified with protein and multivitamins. They rarely are. Most of these biscuits are plain and their quality is lower than average. One pupil said the biscuits are "a disgusting brown colour; they are odourless, so you cannot tell if they are no longer any good. They don't taste good at all."
When pupils do not eat the biscuits, they usually throw them away. One concerned parent said he would never permit his daughter to eat the biscuits, but so as not to feel guilty about throwing food away, they are fed to chickens. Critics have urged the Ministry of Education to stop distributing these meals, suggesting instead that the money be channelled into exemption from school fees, provision of school uniforms or even the payment of a stipend. Others have called for the removal of such subsidies altogether.
However, the headmaster at Arab Abu Said fiercely opposes the idea of stopping the school meal programme. "People just don't understand how badly off these school children are. Most of the parents here are builders and brick manufacturers; they earn an average of LE80-100 a month on an irregular basis. They often have six or seven children in school, and you could see it in the children's eyes that they are hungry. As a matter of fact, even the teachers arrive at school without having had breakfast." Most children, after having skipped breakfast, go home for an evening meal of usually cheese, bread and fried potatoes. That is supposed to keep them going until the next day.
Many older-generation parents who had gone to school fondly remember receiving hot meals of milk, eggs, fetir and fruit. These meals were provided via international development agencies operating in Egypt. They stopped their work when the 1967 War broke out. When the programme was resumed, it was under the auspices of the Ministry of Education. Mohamed Mahmoud Saad, in charge of the school meal programme at the Ministry of Education, said that as the numbers of pupils increased, it became more difficult to check storage conditions and delivery methods. "And anyway, it is not supposed to be our responsibility, but that of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Trade and Supply," he added.
In the meantime, school meals have been temporarily withheld. To re-introduce them now in their previous form could be a bad idea. Many pupils have in any case sworn that they would never eat those biscuits again.
"The era of school biscuits is definitely over. But is it too much to ask for a clean, fresh and nutritious meal to be introduced instead?" wondered one concerned parent.