South Africa

CHRONICLE: Child feeding schemes battered by recession and drought

By Leila Dougan 25 June 2017

In early June Stats SA announced that South Africa had entered a technical recession – its second since the end of apartheid. The economy’s negative growth, along with rising food prices in the aftermath of a severe drought, is taking its toll on lower income families, many of whom are buckling under financial pressure. Over nine million underprivileged children rely on school feeding programmes for their daily meal. And while the cost of feeding a child is rising, the line of hungry tummies is also growing. By LEILA DOUGAN for CHRONICLE.

Tin structures stand on soggy sand after the long-awaited but insufficient winter rains over Cape Town. In an informal settlement in Kensington, Natasha Stuurman, 39, helps her two youngest daughters put on extra layers to guard against the morning cold. Gayle, 4, zips up a blue top that reads “princess”, Kaylin, 2, whines as her mother helps lead her frail arms into the sleeves of a pink hooded jacket. They are two of Stuurman’s seven children.

“We are happy about the rain, but it’s unfortunate for us because it gets into the house. It was leaking here a little bit but at least the children were dry,” Stuurman says, picking up Kaylin.

The shack is small and dim. A thin carpet separates a double mattress from the winter damp and an overturned crate serves as a chair. They have electricity but no running water. Stuurman is unemployed and the family lives off R1,800 per month that she collects from five child grants.

Stuurman has lived in the informal settlement since 1995 and her two sons, Tezvil, 8, and David, 11, attend school around the corner at HJ Kroneberg Primary. Both boys are on the school’s feeding programme.

Sometimes we don’t have food to give them. I ask them whether they eat at school and they say ‘yes, mommy’. They get porridge and maybe a little apple and then they get a plate of food so they’re sorted for the day, they don’t come home hungry,” said Stuurman.

Week days may be taken care of but weekends are tough. Very often a dry piece of bread and black tea with a teaspoon of sugar is all that keeps the hunger pangs away.

Photo: There are over nine million children nationally on National School Nutrition Programme, but thousands of underprivileged learners across the country don’t receive these meals because they are in schools rated quintile 4 – 5 by the education department.

“Many of the children on the feeding programme come from backgrounds where there is a lack of nutrition and a lack of food,” said Samantha Williams, the feeding co-ordinator at HJ Kroneberg Primary School. Of the 587 pupils at the school, 45% are on the feeding programme. They get a hot breakfast in the morning before the school bell rings, and a cooked lunch during first break at 10am.

Williams says since the feeding programme started in 2014 academic performance has improved and attendance has increased, especially on Mondays and Fridays. “(Learners are) hungry from the weekend so they eat at school on a Monday, and they’re here on a Friday because it’s probably their last meal until the next Monday morning,” she said.

The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) began in 1994 and feeds over nine million children in 19,000 schools across South Africa. According to Provincial Education MEC Debbie Schäfer’s spokesperson Jessica Shelver, over R300-million has been allocated to the NSNP In the Western Cape for the current financial year, which provides almost half a million learners with a nutritious breakfast and lunch each school day. 

But the NSNP, which keeps stomachs filled, is limited to certain schools depending on the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) quintile system, which ranks and funds public schools based on the poverty and inequality levels of learners.

Quintile 1-3 schools are categorised as the most needy in the country. They are no-fee schools and 100% of their children get fed by the NSNP. Quintile 4- 5 schools, on the other hand, charge fees and are considered the least needy public schools. Only a portion of learners in quintile 4 and 5 schools are provided with meals from the national feeding scheme.

Photo: HJ Kroneberg school has over 250 learners on a feeding scheme. 

HJ Kroneberg is a quintile 5 school and does not qualify for the NSNP, despite the number of its pupils who come from abject poverty. Fees are R1,200 annually per child, but the school only collects 30-40% of these payments, as the bulk of parents and guardians apply for school fee exemptions.

“I don’t know why we’re a quintile 5 school, because a lot of our kids come from the informal settlements where there is unemployment. Many kids are bused in and that’s a contributing factor, because parents are paying so much money for transport — which they know they have to pay otherwise the transport won’t pick their kids up. So they’re paying the transport rather than the school fees,” said Williams. 

Because HJ Kroneberg is listed as a quintile 5 school and none of the pupils qualify to be fed by the NSNP, the school relies on the Peninsula School Feeding Association (PSFA) to feed children like Tezvil and David, who face food insecurity.

Photo: Given the tough economic climate and rising food prices, there could be a significant increase nationally in the amount of children who depend on feeding schemes for a daily nutritional meal.

Petrina Pakoe, director of PSFA, says  the education department needs to relook at the quintile system. “There are learners at over 1,000 schools who are not being fed because they fall within those quintile 4 and 5 schools, she said. “And because of the financial crisis, it is likely that more children will rely on these meals.”

PSFA is based in the Western Cape. One of its main objectives is to raise money to feed needy learners at quintile 4 and 5 schools who fall through the cracks. PSFA opened their doors almost six decades ago and currently provide over 300,000 children with nutritious cooked meals in more than 450 schools.

They recently raised their annual price to “feed a child” from R395 to R450, which works out to R2.50 per meal for a nutritious breakfast and lunch while at school for an entire year.

But there are fears of the indirect, long-term impact that the economic downgrade and technical recession will have on their feeding scheme. As donors tighten their belts, fewer children may benefit from the programme.

“If the Reserve Bank starts pushing up interest rates, bonds are going to go up. If (donor’s) bonds go up they will have less disposable income and the first thing they will cut is the unnecessary costs:they will cut their funds to us,” said Morne Goosen, PSFA’s financial manager.

“The quickest time frame when it comes to moving out of junk status is five to seven years. So for the next seven years we are vulnerable. It’s a volatile economic situation,” said Goosen.

Another aspect affecting food security of the most vulnerable is the drought – the worst in a century – which has pushed up food prices.

“Farmers in the Western Cape have lost full crops due to the drought,” said Goosen and, as a result, PSFA has had to pay the price of sourcing fresh produce from neighbouring provinces; transporting cabbages and carrots from the Eastern Cape.

“Three years ago no one thought about junk status, or drought. Three years ago we had more rain than we knew what to do with, now we don’t have water,” said Goosen.

“We’ve had these challenges before. We’ve had droughts, we’ve had price hikes but we’ve weathered the storm,” said fund raising manager Charles Grey whose main goal is to make their”‘donors’ rand stretch”. Their flagship fundraising event Blisters for Bread will take place in August.  

Photo: The Peninsula School Feeding Association will be hosting its annual fundraising event, Blisters for Bread, in Cape Town in August, which raises funds for thousands of underprivileged children in quintile 4 – 5 schools in the Western Cape.

But the impact of junk status and the rise in food prices are not limited to PSFA. Williams says that these factors will also lead to other children being dependent on school feeding programmes who weren’t before. “With the downgrade and the economic recession people are going to have to pull their purse strings a lot tighter, which means less food in the house. So I think we’ll probably have more children that will go onto the programme.”

“But we have a policy, we turn nobody away, whether the child is on the feeding programme or not, if that child is hungry, they can get food,” said Williams.

While the financial situation pummels the homes of the most needy, unexpected disasters put more pressure on parents like Stuurman. Earlier this year a fire ravaged the informal settlement where she lives, leaving thousands in the community with nothing but ash. Caswell and David’s school uniforms were lost in the blaze, as well as Stuurman’s ID book, a document she needs in order to apply for a six-month work contract with the council. She’s been waiting for a replacement for the past three months.

In the meantime she continues to look for informal work, grateful that even when the cupboards are empty at home, at least two of her children will not go hungry. DM

Photo: Natasha Stuurman (39) stands outside her home with her two youngest daughters in Kuilsriver. Stuurman has seven children. Two receive meals from the Peninsula School Feeding Association at HJ Kroneberg Primary.

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