Ending school feeding plan will hurt children and education

Etasopia Primary School pupils, Kajiado, queue to be served lunch, October 2015. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

Malnutrition weighs heavily on Kenya’s school-age children and adolescents, who make up a significant portion of the population at 36 per cent, according to African Population and Health Research Center.

The World Health Organisation advocates for food systems that prioritise healthy, sustainable diets to address the burden of malnutrition, especially in developing nations like Kenya. National policies, including the Constitution, Vision 2030, and the Food and Nutrition Security Policy, 2012, underscore the importance of nutrition for all citizens. Malnutrition has detrimental effects on growth, cognitive development and school performance, and has long-term health outcomes for children and adolescents.

Revelation by Basic Education Permanent Secretary Belio Kipsang that the government has no budget for school feeding programme for the financial year 2024/2025 is a shocker to the sector. This is because the programme, which feeds over 2.6 million learners in over 26 counties, plays a significant role in ensuring that learners attend school by addressing their nutrition needs.

For poor families living in slums and informal settlements in urban and semi urban areas, this could be the only meal that some of their children have in a day. It means when the meal is withdrawn, it will be a challenge for them to concentrate in class. For this reason, Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja's ‘Dishi na County’, targeting public primary schools and early childhood education centres, remains a noble initiative.

In arid and semi-arid areas, where farming hardly happens, school feeding programmes are of utmost importance. The programme helps to keep children in school throughout the school learning period.

If the feeding programme is withdrawn, it will mean that learners will be moving with their parents, who are pastoralists, from one place to another seeking pasture and water for their animals and therefore would miss school.

Parts of North Rift, North Eastern and the Coastal strip are from time to time affected by insecurity which ranges from organised criminal gangs, acts of banditry and terrorism. These activities have disorganised families’ economic activities, including farming. Most of these areas also depend heavily on school feeding programmes. Withdrawing the food will be a disaster in the making.

With ongoing destructive rains, it has been predicted that there will be crop failure. We do not expect bumper harvests in the coming months and therefore there will be scarcity of food in many if not most parts of our country. It means the country shall experience prolonged hunger. Schools will be most hard hit due to low or lack of supply of food products.

The main aim of having school feeding programmes in schools was to address malnutrition which had and continues to have detrimental effects on the growth of children, cognitive development of learners and school performance.

Research has shown that with this programme, learners have attended school regularly, they have had good cognitive development and their school performance has tremendously improved. The programme is good and beneficial not only to learners and schools, but also to the entire country.

Scrapping the food programme will be the second blow for learners following the recent suspension of Edu-Afya, the medical insurance cover for students in public secondary schools.  The move also comes at a time when Ministry of Education has proposed to slash capitation due to strained government budget.

With the hard economic times, high inflation and destructive floods, parents may not be able to pay medical bills, feed their children and pay school fees.

The government should rethink its decision to withdraw the school feeding programme. It should also consider reinstating ‘Edu-Afya’. A quick survey has shown that quite a number of schools reported inconsistency in school attendance in first term of 2024 due to learners going home to seek medical attention. This will impact negatively on academic performance at the end of the year.

We are aware the education sector receives the largest share of the national budget, with an  allocation of Sh628.6 billion in the 2023-24 financial year, representing 27.4 per cent of national expenditure. This allocation is deserved because the sector is critical.