Nigeria: Gratuitous School Feeding

editorial

The federal government, last week, launched the revised version of its school feeding programme in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Speaking during the launch at Kuje Central Primary School in Kuje Area Council of Abuja, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sa'adiya Farouq, said the intervention shall cost the federal government hundreds of millions of naira. She said, "This programme is funded by the federal government, but implemented by the states. I am here to launch the commencement of the modified programme in the FCT." She affirmed that feeding pupils even when schools were still shut shows government's commitment to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on parents of pupils who attend public schools.

The National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) of the federal government was halted when government responded to the outbreak of coronavirus in the country. Government ordered the closure of schools, which have since March 2020 remained shut throughout the country. According to Sa'adiya, "The commencement of the school feeding programme (now) is based on Mr President's directive to the ministry that we should liaise with state governments to develop strategies on the continuation of the school feeding programme." She said hunger, which is a by-product of the pandemic, necessitated government's decision.

Explaining how beneficiary pupils would be reached, Sa'adiya said households, where these children come from, were identified through the registers accessed from the various schools which the children attend. She clarified that 3,131,971 households will benefit from the intervention. The ration of food, which is expected to last each pupil for a month comprises of a 5kg bag of rice, 5kg bag of beans, 500ml vegetable oil, 750ml of palm oil, 500mg of salt, 15pieces of eggs and 140gm of tomato paste valued at N4,200. The minister maintained that the programme will target parents and guardians of children in primary 1 to 3 in public schools participating in the programme. Before the outbreak of coronavirus, pupils in public schools in Primary 1 to 3 were fed daily to reduce the number of out-of-school children.

Soon after the launch of the modified school feeding programme, government came under public attacks from Nigerians who consider embarking on a school feeding programme that costs N679 million daily while schools remained shut as a huge scam. Commenting on the public insinuations, Sa'adiya said: "I have told you it is in hundreds of millions because we are targeting 3.1 million households all over the country. I cannot tell you precisely the amount but it is a lot of money." Defending government action further at the 32nd joint national briefing of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Sa'adiya said most food vendors having mobilised have made purchases preparatory to the project before the school calendar was disrupted by the pandemic, adding that demanding a refund would be cumbersome and unrealistic.

Many things are wrong with the explanations offered by the minister to justify the modified school feeding programme. It is strange to implement school feeding while pupils are at home. If the programme were strategically targeted from the onset at increasing school enrolment and attendance at the basic school level, modifying it to take place in pupils' homes amounts to a misplaced priority, a departure from initial goal, and a waste of huge public resources; making the action gratuitous. Although the minister claimed that school feeding was modified to cushion the effect of lockdown on households, the modified arrangement clearly excludes parents whose children are not in public schools or not in any school at all. The verification process and distribution pattern of items are also prone to chaos, pilfering and corruption.

The assertion that food vendors were already mobilised isn't a genuine excuse to feed pupils in their homes. It is clear that the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs has a lot of money which it doesn't know what to utilise it for. We advise government to focus on providing palliatives for poor families. Nigerian children are assured of benefiting and feeding when the palliatives reach their respective parents.

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