South Africa: When Kids Go Hungry - Fighting for Solutions in the ECD Sector

A young child being measured for signs of malnutrition (file photo).
5 November 2020

"The children must eat," says Cynthia Dwanya, a preschool teacher in the seaside village of Qolora on the Eastern Cape's Wild Coast. A small group of young children play on the concrete floor at Dwanya's feet. A recently donated box of toys keeps the kids occupied while Dwanya speaks to Spotlight.

There are 20 children up to the age of five attending Nogqawuse Preschool. From the outside it does not look like much; just a simple church building that is used for the school during the week, but for these children it is a fundamental building block for the rest of their lives.

Dwanya was born and raised in Qolora and has two young children of her own in the class. Before her school, there was no early childhood development (ECD) programme in the area and parents were getting worried. With a background in social development and knowing how much early learning helps children, Dwanya started and registered the preschool as an ECD centre in 2019.

"Since I started last year, I don't have [my own] stationary or toys," she says. Although she has registered the preschool, like many other ECD programmes in the country, Dwanya could not access any early learning subsidies for the children. This subsidy currently stands at R17 per child per day, and almost half of this money should go towards nutrition.

The provincial department of social development tells Spotlight that the province currently subsidises 2 939 ECD centres. Each centre is funded for 264 days, at R17 per child per day, says departmental spokesperson Mzukisi Solani. The R17 subsidy comprises R7 for administration, R7 for nutrition and R3 for stimulation.

"ECD services constitute the largest intervention of government aimed at addressing child poverty and malnutrition. While the main focus of ECD is cognitive and social development of children, it also contributes to healthy physical motor development of children aged between 0-5 years through providing regular and nutritious meals to young ones from poor and destitute households," says Solani.

Without the subsidies, out of her own pocket Dwanya buys and cooks maize porridge with margarine and sugar at home, and brings it to school for the young learners. Before this, the children would come to school complaining of hunger, she says. "If the children do not eat, they will be lazy in the classroom," she says.

While this porridge is a nutritional lifeline for these children, they endured months during the lockdown period without it. Dwanya could only restart school in the beginning of September, which meant the young learners went for over five months without school and without porridge.

"We are suffering here," says Dwanya, telling Spotlight how hunger worsened in the community during the lockdown period. Now, even with the gradual easing of restrictions, she says employment and job opportunities are scarce, and providing for one's family is a major challenge.

Making a meal out of scraps

A drive through a nearby gumtree forest takes Spotlight to another small ECD facility. This one is colourfully marked Mzumhle Preschool, painted on the outside of a small yellow building.

During the day, Novusile Mjamba welcomes roughly 20 children into this quaint school on the hillside. The swing set and slide outside are popular among this community's youngest members, a luxury that facilities like this seldom have in the area. Mjamba's preschool re-opened in August once lockdown restrictions eased, but from April until then, times were tough for these children at home.

Mjamba, like Dwanya, says that there is too much hunger in the community, and mothers cannot find work to support their families. Unlike Dwanya, Mjamba has no resources to provide any food for the children. Instead, she walks with the small class each weekday to a nearby primary school to collect whatever food is left over from the school's meals. The leftover food are distributed on plates among the young children, and hardly make up enough to be called a meal, says Mjamba. But for some of these children it is the only food they will receive for the day.

Mjamba gestures to two of the children, a brother and sister. "They will finish the plates of the other kids if there is any food left," she says.

The mother of the siblings does not have an ID, so she cannot yet apply for a child support grant, says Mjamba. Without both work and a grant, hunger is a constant challenge for this family and for many others in the community. If it weren't for the leftover food from the primary school's meals, the young children could become vulnerable to more severe forms of malnutrition.

ECD centres are pivotal to address nutrition

Outside of these small villages, people like Zaheera Mohamed and her colleagues at Ilifa Labantwana, a non-profit organisation focussed on improving the ECD sector, are working towards solutions to the problems faced by ECD providers like Dwanya and Mjamba.

"One of the key reasons [caregivers send their children to ECD centres] is that they know they're getting proper meals. The situation we are sitting with now is that children during lockdown did not have access to those meals and coupled with that children are coming from vulnerable households where people have lost their jobs and incomes. It's a double whammy for those kids," says Mohamed, the organisation's director of ECD financing.

Mohamed tells Spotlight that the early learning subsidy reaches fewer than 700 000 children across South Africa, and in order to better address nutrition for these children, other mechanisms must be put in place.

Registering and applying for the subsidy is one thing, says Mohamed, but getting it in the bank account is another challenge.

"We need a different strategy for [ages] 0 to 5 nutrition in early learning, rather than the subsidy. Something that's quick and agile and gets the money, the food or the voucher to the site so they can quickly purchase food. The way the system works now is too precarious and very risky," she says.

"I think that ECD programmes and any funding to ECD is a superb and appropriately targeted intervention to address nutrition from [ages] 0 to 5. If we want to target nutrition from 0 to 5, you know where [those children] are, they need to be in ECD, it's a sensible strategy. But the coverage is too low, so we need to do something to increase coverage to target ECD programmes to get nutrition to children."

In April, Ilifa Labantwana surveyed 8 500 ECD providers, of which 68 percent said they were worried that they would be unable to reopen after the lockdown. A follow-up survey in August found that out of 4 500 providers, only 32 percent could reopen their programmes. Reasons for not reopening included not being able to secure the resources needed to meet health and safety standards, not having enough money and parents being fearful of sending their children back to school.

Children not attending ECD programmes means that providers are not receiving school fees, and this, coupled with the challenges of getting the early learning subsidy means that children are not receiving a meal, and providers are struggling to stay financially viable, explains Mohamed. "That's what we are incredibly worried about at this point."

Kick-starting ECD sites with a voucher system

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown's impact on ECD programmes, Ilifa Labantwana raised close to R40 million for an intervention plan. "There were so many needs that had to be fulfilled for ECD programmes to re-open, coupled with the dire needs of children who are hungry. After lots of debate," Mohamed says, "we thought that hunger in children is something that is not tolerable and we decided to issue nutritional vouchers alongside site support packs for the programmes to re-open."

The organisation started a voucher system that provides site owners, mostly unregistered, with a code that can be redeemed for food items at their local spaza shop. This not only helps to feed children, but stimulate the local economy.

"There are many other ways to get nutrition to ECD sites in a much more agile way, and we're trying and testing the voucher as an option. We're going to write those up and we're hoping to present them to government," she adds.

"You can't leave the ECD sector to open by chance. It needs some targeted intervention. There's nothing stimulating [sites] to open, no incentives, and I think they're dwindling away rather than coming through this crisis. Through this [voucher system] intervention we're hoping to show that with minimal support, it's enough to kick-start the sites to open, because if we give them nutritional vouchers, they don't need the fees for meals."

However, this voucher intervention is not permanent, and funding will only last until January or February, says Mohamed.

Pushing parliament for ECD Reform

In parliament, over 100 civil society, education and legal reform organisations including Ilifa Labantwana are fighting for much-needed reform in the ECD sector. The organisations made submissions on the Children's Amendment Bill, which serves to amend The Children's Act.

"The Real Reform for ECD campaign is rallying around five key reforms that we think the sector needs to have for a more enabling legal and regulatory framework which is necessary if we want to reach our goal of universal access to ECD services," says Tess Peacock, who heads up the campaign.

According to the 2018 General Household Survey, there are over 6 million children of ECD-going age in the country, and the majority of these children live in poverty, says Peacock. "Our analysis of the survey finds that in 2018, 2.4 million [children] were accessing an ECD centre, 400 000 children were in non-centre based programmes and 3.2 million were not accessing any form of ECD programme," she says.

"The sector has been pushing for major legal reform for over a decade, and then to see the proposed changes in the Children's Amendment Bill was really disappointing. Not only did they not address the major challenges, but in some ways made things worse and more confusing," says Peacock.

"The key challenges we are facing are unattainable registration requirements, a complicated dual registration process, pro-poor mechanisms in the Children's Act that are not used and major gaps in the legislation that prevent the ECD Policy from being properly implemented."

The campaign's five proposed reforms are:

A one step registration process for ECD providers and for different types of ECD providers to be regulated differently;

For all children who need it, to access the government early learning subsidy;

For simpler, adequate compliance standards;

For support to be provided to providers who cannot meet registration requirements, particularly in poor communities; and

For the infrastructure needs of the sector to be supported.

With ECD having a major role to play in addressing child hunger and nutrition, Peacock says that easing barriers to registration would improve access to the early learning subsidy, though this still depends on provincial budgets.

"In July this year StatsSA produced a report announcing that 6 out of 10 children in South Africa are considered 'multidimensionally poor'. It is urgent that this subsidy be extended to all children who live in households in the two poorest income quintiles if we are serious about tackling this."

*Members of the public are invited to make submissions to the Bill before 27 November.

**When kids go hungry is a six-part series looking at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. This series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards.

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