How policy can address malnutrition in schools

May 29, 2019

Early nutrition has an impact on Early Child Development. It has been tied to better schooling, earning power, and societal development. However, poverty exposes millions of children to hunger and malnutrition. Some stakeholders say deliberate government intervention may be the sustainable solution to the problem. KOFOWOROLA BELO-OSAGIE reports.

Early Child Development (ECD) has assumed an important role in achieving many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have 2030 as their timeline.  ECD is captured under Goal Four of the SDGs, which covers Quality Education for all.  Its target is that by 2030 “all boys and girls would have had access to early childhood development, care and pre-primary education and be ready for primary education.”

The ECD is also catered for under SDG Two, which seeks to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

The increased interest in ECD is not unconnected with research findings that have linked the quality of education/nutrition and stimulation a child gets to his level of intelligence, earnings and even health/wellbeing in adulthood.

However, millions of school-age children in Nigeria may miss out of the benefits of good nutrition because of hunger and malnutrition

According to The Lancet Journal of October 2016 on “Advancing Early Childhood Development: from Science to Scale”, about 43 per cent of children under five years of age (numbering almost 250 million) living in low and middle income countries may not reach their full development potential.

It was, therefore, no surprise that the theme for this year’s Children’s Day in Nigeria, which held on Monday was: “End Malnutrition: Protect the Future of the Nigerian Child”.

In his speech at the Children’s Day parade and rally organised by the Lagos State Ministry of Education, former governor of the state, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, quoting UNICEF, said over 2.5 million Nigerian children were severely malnourished.

Ambode, who was represented by the Permanent Secretary in the office of the former Deputy Governor, Mrs Yetunde Odejayi, at the event, which held at Agege Stadium, lamented that only a fraction of such children are getting treatment to address it.

“According to the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), an estimated 2.5 million children in Nigeria suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), but only two out of every 10 children affected are currently reached with treatment. Seven per cent of women of child-bearing age also suffer from acute malnutrition,” he said.

The benefits of raising well-nourished children are many for the individuals and society at large.

In a document UNICEF shared with journalists at a media dialogue on ECD in Nigeria at Kano in 2017, the agency shared benefits of early nutrition on schooling, earning, poverty reduction and economic development. “Early nutrition programmes can increase school completion by one year; early nutrition programmes can raise adult wages by five to 50 per cent; children who escape stunting are 33 per cent more likely to escape poverty as adults; reductions in stunting can increase GDP by four to 11 per cent in Asia and Africa,” the document stated.

In Nigeria, the largest programme targeted at addressing nutrition and enrolment issues in the education system is the National Homegrown School Feeding Programme (NHSFP), which is being implemented under the National Social Investment Programme.

Under the initiative, the children in Lower Primary classes (Basic 1-3) of public primary schools are fed a meal during school hours.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, said over $183 million had been spent on the programme, reaching about nine million primary pupils in 26 states as at October 2018.

Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Office of the Vice President, Laolu Akande, in April said the initiative had spread to three more states and about half a million more pupils.

Lagos State is not one of the beneficiaries of the school feeding programme sponsored by the Federal Government.

However, the state government gives milk to Primary 1 pupils in its 1,012 public primary schools twice a week.

Special Adviser to Mr Ambode on Primary Education, Mrs Abosede Otun confirmed to The Nation that the Primary One pupils get milk on Mondays and Wednesdays. Head Teacher of Vetland Primary School, Ifako-Ijaiye, Agege, Mrs Olutola Fatusin, said getting the milk makes many children happy to come to school.

“Feeding has improved the coming of the pupils. It will curb lateness, absenteeism and pupils will be happy to come to school. Government gives milk to Primary 1 pupils in particular to make them look healthier, at least twice a week,” he said.

Getting milk twice a week may be good, but insufficient as many children, who attend public primary schools in Lagos State are from low-income families or working as domestic servants in middle/high income homes.

Education Secretary, Agege Local Government Education Authority (LGEA), Mr Olalekan Majiyagbe, said many children come to school hungry, with parents not providing food for their wards before they come to school, urging parents to rise up to their responsibilities, Majiyagbe, who manages 50 primary schools under Agege LGEA, said:

“The food without nutrition, they are not providing it. They have not been catering for the children. They should nurture the children so they can grow physically and mentally. Lagos State government is giving them milk to balance the diet, they should support state by providing for their children.

“Some parents do not care; they leave home at 5am. Some will give them money to buy food. They have shifted their responsibilities to the teachers and the teachers are overwhelmed,” he said.

A former chairperson of Association of Primary School Head Teachers of Nigeria (AOPSHON), Mrs Otun, said many public school teachers use personal funds to feed children who come to school hungry. Otun, who retired from Araromi Primary School in 2012, said: “It is pathetic.  The economic situation of parents is affecting children.  Some teachers give money to children to eat.  But how long can they afford to do that?  You cannot see a child hungry and be looking.  That child will just sleep off.  If you ask why, they will tell you they are hungry.  They will not listen to whatever is being taught in class,” she said.

Seedtime Foundation Executive Director, Mrs Tola Oladeji, told The Nation that in her work with public schools, she has seen the effect of hunger on children, which she attributed to poverty. “I have seen a public school child faint; and by time you ask the child what happened (they will tell you) there is no food. You have some of these children, they have lost their fathers, and their mothers do not have proper income. At the end of the day, the children do not have food.

“There is poverty in this country.  Those who can afford to feed their children properly are not so many.  A particular child shared her testimony.  The child was sick and the mother does 0-1-0 formula (skip breakfast, eat lunch, skip dinner). Some children will eat in the afternoon, some at night. This child took ill and the mother gave her medication.  The child just ate and vomited the medication with the whole food. And the mother said ‘there is no food for you at night because your brother is the one entitled to food at night.’ You won’t believe how people ration food at home for these children.

“If schools or the government can supplement, which is what they are doing in some states, I think it is good.  A healthy body, a healthy mind, a healthy brain, excellent results, better performance and better adults will come out from them.”

Mrs Oladeji said the private sector could support the government in providing meals for pupils in school to reduce hunger and boost nutrition, adding that various organisations support education in even more developed countries.

Read Also: Fresh impetus to tame poverty, malnutrition

According to Otun, when she was Araromi Primary School, Gbagada, Lagos Head Teacher, the school benefited from the largesse of a philanthropist, who fed the pupils during school days for about six years. She said that gesture tremendously improved enrolment and pupils’ attention span. “When I was Head of School, we had a philanthropist giving food five days a week.  Alhaji Abiodun Sunmola did that in Araromi Primary School for about six years. That school was a sample for others. It lasted from 2008 -2012 when I retired. It made the children happy and be attentive  in class.  Most of our children in public schools are house helps and you know they are not treated well.  In that school, one woman also gave milk to the KG classes. The programme was that it increased enrolment such that the school was too full and we had to send children away to other schools.  Some parents even withdrew their children from private schools to our school. The programme stopped when Alhaji Sunmola heard that the Federal Government was going to introduce school feeding programme. But it did not get to Lagos State,” she said.

Plans have been in the pipeline to introduce the Federal Governement’s school feeding initiative in Lagos.  Last May, the former Deputy Governor, Dr Idiat Adebule, said environmental officers, who would select the food vendors had undergone training.  However, she said the programme faced a hitch because of implementation cost of N70 per meal was deemed unrealistic for the huge population of primary school pupils in Lagos State.

Nevertheless, Mrs Otun believes Lagos State can successfully initiate and sustain school feeding programme by learning from Osun State, which started its own Home Grown School Feeding programme in 2012 before the Federal Government adopted it in 2016.

“The government can do it in Lagos State.  The only problem may be the bottlenecks of moving the file from table to table.  Osun State made it sustainable by getting farmers to grow the food that the food vendors would buy,” she said.

Perhaps the new Lagos governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu, may tackle the problem of malnutrition headlong by implementing the school feeding programme in the state.

He would have to avoid the problems plaguing the current programme, particularly, corruption.

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