How boarding school teenagers are starved of nutrients

Lisa Doherty, Deputy Head of Mission in the Embassy of Ireland, serves Enkijape pupils in Imbirikani, Kajiado, after commissioning a new kitchen, 2018. [Peter Muiruri, Standard]

In recent days, high ranking education officials and a section of the public, when reacting to students’ indiscipline, have been painting a picture of ungrateful, bad-mannered and uncouth teenagers whose actions are influenced by narcotic drugs.

Rarely do critics comment on students’ challenges in boarding schools, caused by increased transition rates from primary to secondary, occasioned by free primary education in 2003 and free tuition for secondary in 2008. Whereas overcrowding has been constantly highlighted, Charlotte Serrem, a lecturer at the Department of Consumer Studies at the University of Eldoret, says boarding students have nutrition issues.

According to Dr Serrem, boarding schools, especially the county, sub-county and low-cost ones, are feeding learners with unbalanced diets, compromising the physical and cognitive development of learners.

A study Serrem recently published with associates at the Institute of Business Economics, Leadership and Management at Szent Istvan University in Hungary noted that students are mainly fed with starchy staples (over 60 per cent of the diet). “Meal menus lack variation in food options, and are very repetitive and simplistic,” wrote Serrem and associates, including Kevin Serrem, a PhD candidate at Szent Istvan.

Researchers say menus were mainly served with high fibre foods, mostly maize and beans, and foods such as ugali (stiff porridge) and rice. Least consumed foods include fruits, vegetables or high protein ones such as meats, eggs and milk. “In most cases, students were underfed on nutrients such as Vitamin A, folic acid, potassium, calcium, proteins, and Vitamins B1–12, resulting in low energy provision that students would require as young adults,” stated the researchers.

The study, ‘Paucity of Nutrition Guidelines and Nutrient Quality of Meals Served to Kenyan Boarding High School Students’, argued that the problem was widespread as there was no national school feeding policy and nutrition guidelines.

But even worse is that most school managements have inadequate knowledge of the necessary food rations, nutrient content, and feeding patterns when administering food to children and adolescents, stated the study that covered 50 secondary schools in eight counties out of 3,000 schools countrywide. It assessed the portion size and composition of meals offered daily to boarding students aged 15 to 18. Counties sampled were Elgeyo Marakwet, Kakamega, Kisumu, Laikipia, Nairobi, Nakuru, Nandi and Uasin Gishu.

Researchers found that none of the sampled schools complied with basic guidelines of Food and Agriculture Organisation on nutritional requirements for students, although Kenya has a broad database of nutrient quality foods.

There is no national school feeding policy and nutrition guidelines. [Dickson Mwiti, Standard]

The scholars said feeding students with starchy and unrefined foods such as the maize meal or ugali, and with high-fibre vegetables like kales was a cost factor and keeping students full longer. “This means students concentrate for longer without feeling hungry,” stated the study.

But if that is what education officials and schools’ managements want, it would be a lopsided policy, as it does not apply in all secondary boarding schools. According to the report, students in national schools meet the required protein intake while their counterparts in county and sub-county schools are mainly fed on starchy foods and high-fibre vegetables. Milk is only served in national schools.

By concentrating feeding students primarily with starchy foods, it appears schools are missing the point that protein and other micro food nutrients such as minerals and vitamins are important in adolescent nutrition, as they provide structure for the body and major components of the bones, blood, muscle, cell membranes, enzymes, immune factors and brain development.

But even in circumstances where parents would influence provision of balanced diets in schools, it is not happening, especially in private boarding schools, where students are mainly served rice, potatoes and chapatis. According to the researchers, these foods have low mineral content as most of the nutrients are removed during processing of the husks.

So calcium intake was found to be highest in national schools, probably because of provision of milk, as compared to the rest of the school categories. Nevertheless,  the ability of most boarding schools to meet phosphorous, zinc and iron requirements was attributed to consumption of cereals and pulses, which are rich sources of the minerals.

The issue of Kenyan boarding schools failing to meet expectations of students on food menu requirements, or the ability to provide adequate nutritious balanced diets is not new, as it goes back to colonial days when African students used to go on strike, complaining of inadequate and low-quality food in comparison to what was offered to students in  European and Asian schools.

Amid efforts to resolve the issue, Kenya Education Commission Report (1964) or Ominde Report, requested the then Department of Home Economics at the University of Nairobi to come up with a unified balanced diet for secondary schools. But this aspect of unified balanced diet was never implemented, or even anchored in the Ministry of Education’s rules and regulations governing boarding schools.