Saturday,18 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Saturday,18 November, 2017
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

School meals are back

Free school meals are important for boosting children’s nutrition and classroom focus, but the devil may be in the details, writes Rasha Gedda

The school year has started, and towns and villages across Egypt are waking up daily to the happy sight of millions of children going to school in the early mornings. Even more excited than usual perhaps are the students of a public primary school in the village of Al-Fazara, where the Egyptian Food Bank (EFB), an NGO, has chosen to provide hot school meals as part of a charitable programme run in 35 public schools nationwide.

It’s time for break. The school bell rings, and the children run with unmistakable excitement to the dining room where they impatiently line up to get their nutritious hot meals. “I like this meal. It includes kofta, vegetables and rice, and it’s even more delicious than the food I have at home,” Aya, a young student, said with a giggle of excitement. “I love it.”

The EFB’s meals include a variety of recipes. A meal may include rice, vegetables and meat, or it may be pasta with minced meat in addition to fresh vegetables like carrots and tomatoes. A serving of yellow rice with beans or a dish of koshari (a traditional dish of rice, pasta and lentils) are possible alternatives. Fruits like bananas and oranges are also served for desert, said Shahira Al-Mahdi, EFB head of development projects. “The children are also given their say on what they wish to eat,” she added.

But not all public school children are as lucky as Aya. Those included in the government school meals programme usually get less nutritious meals than those provided by the EFB, if they get them at all. Sometimes free government-issued meals have been suspected of being behind outbreaks of food poisoning among schoolchildren, and budgets are often in short supply.  

“Last year they [government officials] were distributing snacks of biscuits and date-filled pastry at school. The snacks were delicious and the kids would fight over them, but then the school stopped providing meals and they were not allowed anymore,” said Mahmoud Youssef, a nine-year-old student in a public primary school in the Cairo district of Misr Al-Qadima.

The school is included in the government’s free school meal programme, carried out under the auspices of the ministries of education and vocational training in collaboration with the ministries of social solidarity and supplies to encourage impoverished families to send their children to school.

It is thus good news for many schoolchildren like Youssef that the government plans to reintroduce the meals this academic year. Randa Halawa, head of the school dropout department in the ministry of education and vocational training, said the meals would target 11 million public primary schoolchildren nationwide and include a package of snacks including biscuits (50 g for kindergarten students and 80g for those in the primary stage), a 50g cheese pastry, a piece of halawa (sweet sesame paste), and a piece of date-filled pastry.

Although distributing meals in public schools is good news for many poor families, the quality of those meals and their safety remain issues of public concern. Dieticians have warned that schools meals should be more nutritious to boost children’s mental and physical development, and activists insist school meals should be at the top of the government’s agenda to fight poverty, malnutrition and school-dropout rates.

Official statistics show that poverty has been on the increase over the past decade. According to 2016 figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the government’s statistics agency, Egypt’s poverty rate surged to 27.8 per cent of the population in 2015, compared to 25.2 per cent in 2010-11 and 21.6 per cent in 2008/9. In an official report released by the state-run agency on International Day to Combat Poverty, CAPMAS said “extreme poverty” had reached 5.3 per cent in Egypt due to price hikes of essential foodstuffs.

A 2014 report by the cabinet-affiliated Centre for Information and Decision-Making showed how school meals have helped enhance school attendance, especially among poorer children whose parents cannot afford to send them sandwiches, and boosted children’s immunity to anemia and other diseases caused by poor nutrition. Free school meals, the report concluded, should thus be seen in the broader context of poverty-alleviation and anti-hunger policies. The report added that Egypt was one of 169 countries providing free school meals in public schools around the world, from which a total of 368 million children benefit worldwide.

Egypt has had such school-meal programmes since the 1940s, when students were treated to a cooked meal at the end of the day. Hot meals were later replaced by packs of wheat, butter and powdered milk distributed to children throughout the academic year. School meal programmes were then suspended for some years, only to come back in the form of packs of plain biscuits in the 1990s irregularly distributed to some schoolchildren.

Children going to public schools were perhaps best off in 2013 when the government of former prime minister Hazem Al-Beblawi gave special attention to free school meals. The man at the helm at the time was Ziad Bahaaeddin, the then deputy prime minister, who exerted efforts to turn school meals into a national programme to increase social equity.

However, then the government changed, and 2014 saw an outbreak of food poisoning among schoolchildren reportedly rushed to hospital with fever and vomiting after eating school meals. Although the link between the school meals and the sick children was never confirmed, the government suspended the meals as a precautionary measure, then re-establishing them the following year in the form of bread and cheese or halawa.

There was another episode of food poisoning, however, and the programme was suspended. Many suspected that the cheese had been improperly stored, and officials are keen to substitute pastry instead.

 

HEALTH BENEFITS: Mahmoud is lucky when compared to other schoolchildren whose families cannot afford to send them school meals. Mahmoud does not have to wait for the occasional free meal at school since he either has breakfast with his family at home or has sandwiches in his bag, which he says is a luxury for many of his classmates.

“There are students in our class who neither have breakfast nor take sandwiches because they are too poor to afford them,” he said. “Those children either wait for the school to distribute pastries or we share sandwiches together.”

Health-wise, however, breakfast should never be a luxury, especially for children of school age.  Research by the University of Cardiff in the UK on 5,000 children found that “kids who eat breakfast performed above average during national tests,” according to the BBC. “They also found a strong link between kids eating a healthy breakfast, such as cereal, bread, dairy or fruit, and doing well at school.” It was also found that a protein-rich breakfast boosts children’s concentration span longer than those just having carbohydrates.

Nutrition expert Ashraf Abdel-Aziz explained to Al-Ahram Weekly how “breakfast provides the body with a third of its needed nutrients for the rest of the day.” Breakfast, he said, “increases focus and attention span, boosts memory and problem-solving ability, particularly in the first years of a child’s life, when he or she develops fast both physically and mentally.” Conversely, Abdel-Aziz warned that skipping breakfast could mean “breaking up tissues so that the body can get the energy needed for schoolwork”.

“Research has found that kids who get a well-balanced breakfast achieve more than those who have a poor-quality meal or do not have any breakfast,” Abdel-Aziz said. Malnutrition may even lead to children’s growth becoming stunted.  

Six essential nutrients are needed for a balanced meal: protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, vitamins and water. “A child should have a breakfast of, for instance, white cheese with fresh vegetables like tomato and cucumber and a boiled egg, or, in case the family cannot afford it, a serving of fuul [fava beans] with lemon and oil together with bread and fresh vegetables which together can provide the body with all the needed nutrients.”

Abdel-Aziz thus insists that this year’s suggested school pastry meal will not be nutritious enough, but rather can only be considered to be complementary to a well-balanced breakfast.

But budgets remain a challenge in the way of attaining well-balanced meals. Official figures provided by the ministries of finance and education show that government spending on school meals in 2013/14 was LE413 million targeting 9.5 million children for a period of 70 days a year. That budget jumped to LE1.4 billion the following year with foreign aid covering the difference. The programme covered 16 million children at all school stages at the time. In 2015/16, about 13.5 million children benefited from the programme, which cost LE957.8 million.

This academic year Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali has announced that the Ministry of Finance has earmarked LE1.8 billion for the school meal programme, which will target 11 million primary and kindergarten children. The UN World Food Programme will also distribute free meals among 113,000 students in community education. Both programmes, officials say, are meant to boost children’s health and curb school-dropout rates.

According to a 2016 CAPMAS report, about 0.6 per cent of primary students and 4.5 per cent of preparatory students dropped out of school in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 academic years. Studies suggest that school dropouts are partly due to the fact that many poorer families cannot afford school meals.

But can a package of pastry snacks really help attain that object? The snacks may curb school dropouts a bit, but many would agree with Bahaaeddin that they can hardly achieve the long-term objective of attaining social equity and building a productive and healthy generation.

As a prominent economist and political activist, Bahaaeddin insists that the meals should contain essential nutrients for children’s growth according to international criteria and be distributed consistently 120 days a year. In order that they can do so, Bahaaeddin suggested in a recent article in the daily Al-Shorouk newspaper that school meals should be considered as a national project with a separate budget of their own — like the current social insurance programme — rather than remain supplementary to poverty alleviation programmes.

Free school meals, in short, should be at the top of the government’s agenda and only then, Bahaaeddin added, “will they support the poor and yield economic benefit”s. In the long run, free nutritious school meals are bound to boost the productivity of society, curb health expenses, and create hundreds of thousands of job opportunities for those involved in the production, distribution and management of the meals, he said.  

 

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS: Budgets, however, are not the only challenge: there are also problems in the mechanisms used to implement the programme.

Both government and foreign aid officials are insisting on taking the easy path of distributing a less nutritious package of snacks that will hardly boost children’s health in order to cover a larger number of students. This means attaining quantity at the expense of quality. Besides, Bahaaeddin added, free meals are usually run centrally by the Ministry of Education when they should be devolved to other entities.

“School meal programmes need the collaboration of different ministries and civil society groups who should work together under state management,” Bahaaeddin said. That management should be responsible for designing a system to organise the work of all the parties involved and manage the whole process starting from producing, packing, storing and distributing meals, to monitoring food safety and quality and further assessing the social and health benefits of the programme.

Even so, the outbreaks of food poisoning among schoolchildren and the rushing of infected cases to hospital after eating free school lunches remain major sources of concern. Every year cases of poisoning occur among thousands of schoolchildren at state schools, and free school meals have been suspected as the common factor.

In one incident in the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag, some 3,353 students were affected last year, while similar outbreaks have taken place in other governorates including Aswan, Minya and Beni Sweif, but on a smaller scale. The Education Ministry then suspended the distribution of school meals nationwide and a committee was formed to find out the reasons behind these occurrences and conduct the required investigations.

Investigations by government laboratories affiliated to the ministry of health announced that blood tests on the affected children had been negative and that an investigation of the school meals had not detected bacteria linked to food poisoning.

“There were no food poisoning incidents in public schools last year or in any past year,” Halawa told the Weekly. “The school meals were alleged to have caused the food poisoning, but the health ministry’s labs proved otherwise when they failed to detect the relevant bacteria.”  

A similar incident occurred in Sohag in 2014, and again a committee formed by the Ministry of Health investigated the incident and confirmed that the meals were safe. The Ministry of Health then announced that although the meals had been safe, there might have been a problem with appropriate storage. Even so, the governors of the provinces where the alleged cases of poisoning had occurred suspended the distribution of school meals for the rest of the year as a precautionary measure, according to Halawa.

This year, Halawa insists that serious measures are being taken to monitor the safety of free school meals. “There have been concerted efforts on the part of the ministries of education, social solidarity and supplies to guarantee and monitor the safety of the meals,” she explained, adding that the government had contracted large firms to distribute the meals on a daily basis in order to avoid problems linked to storage. Any violations would be punished by large fines, she said.  

The EFB stepped into the fray seven years ago to provide free school meals in a programme that has perhaps attained what consecutive governments have failed to do over the past two decades. It started with one pilot project in a public school in Cairo and soon expanded to cover 35 schools nationwide. The organisation has built 20 kitchens on school premises, with a focus on Upper Egypt where poverty rates are the highest.  

“The idea was to build five-star kitchens in schools in Egypt’s most impoverished areas in order to make them more appealing to students,” Al-Mahdi said. “We prepare the meals inside the schools, and we have furnished dining rooms on the school premises for the kids to have their meals. Now we see how happy the children are and how regular they are in attendance.”

The project has also provided support to impoverished families through job opportunities for the mothers of targeted students. “We thought of employing mothers in the preparation and distribution of the meals as well as in cleaning jobs, in order to guarantee the quality of the meals on the one hand and provide financial support to many impoverished families, particularly single mothers, on the other,” Al-Mahdi said.

“It’s sort of a double gain: we boost children’s health and scholastic achievement via carefully chosen nutritious meals, while also empowering mothers with a healthy meal and a monthly salary,” she concluded.

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