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Timeline for the National School Nutrition Programme court case

What is the National School Nutrition Programme?

The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is a national project run by the Department of Basic Education to feed over 9 million learners daily nutritious meals at public schools across the country. 

Since 1994, the programme has been rolled out in schools in South Africa to enhance learners’ food security, combat malnutrition, reduce hunger and improve school attendance and other educational outcomes. It is seen as a critical programme to furthering learners’ constitutional rights to basic nutrition (Section 28(1)(c) of the Constitution) and basic education (Section 29(1)(a) of the Constitution). 

The NSNP is funded by a conditional grant, meaning that money is especially put aside for the sole purpose of the feeding scheme. This money cannot be used for anything else. 

Targeting schools in socio-economic quintiles 1-3, the NSNP has been widely celebrated as one of the government’s most effective ‘pro-poor’ policies for its impressive scope, reaching the most vulnerable children in the country.

Why did we take the Department of Basic Education and provincial education departments to court about the NSNP?

The timeline below outlines a number of promises that the DBE and provincial education departments made about resuming the NSNP for all learners, but subsequently broke. These broken promises violate learners’ constitutional rights to basic nutrition, basic education and equality – and contribute to the increased suffering of entire families and households during this difficult time. In a context of heightened food insecurity, the NSNP reaches millions of households who need nutritional support now more than ever, and should be leveraged by the state to combat hunger and suffering. 

In a media statement released on 3 June 2020, we called these broken promises “an astounding betrayal of its previous undertakings” which would prejudice learners from poor households in the short and long term in a time of veritable food insecurity and crisis. 

Here’s the timeline of events that lead us to court against the DBE to fight for #SchoolMealsNow for all 9 million eligible learners:

  • 18 March: schools close to combat the spread of COVID-19 in South Africa. At this point, over 9 million learners stopped receiving a daily meal at school through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). 
  • 26 March: Nationwide lockdown commences – millions of families lose their sources of income, and food insecurity increases. 
  • 10 April: Open letter from EE, EELC, SECTION27, Children’s Institute and the Centre for Child Law, entitled: ‘Open Letter To The Minister Of Basic Education Planning In A Time Of Crisis – School Feeding Schemes Can And Must Continue.’
    • Minister Angie Motshekga had claimed that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) had “accessed [their] capacity” and that they would not “be able to” run feeding schemes during the lockdown.
    • In this letter, we challenged her position: “the continuation of school nutrition provisioning for learners is critical and urgent and we urge you to ensure that children’s needs are prioritised and protected in government’s plans.”
    • Only received a response on 11 May 2020, where the DBE stated that the NSNP would only resume once schools reopened.
  • 17 April: EELC and SECTION27 write a letter to the Presidency and DBE, urging for the reinstatement of the NSNP for all learners, regardless of whether or not they had returned to school.
  • 20 April: With partners at the Children’s Institute and the Centre for Child Law, we called for an Urgent Joint Portfolio Committee Meeting on Children’s Access to Food with the Portfolio Committees on the Departments of Basic Education and Social Development. 
    • In a letter to both Portfolio Committees, we called for constitutional oversight on the Departments to “ensure that children have access to basic nutrition.”
  • 29 April: New lockdown Regulations gazetted, further delaying the intended phased reopening of schools. 
  • 11 May: Meeting of Council Education Ministers (CEM) where it was decided that the NSNP would be provided to all learners when schools reopened, based on context sensitive models. 
    • The distribution of food parcels, food vouchers or staggered time-slots for receiving school meals were all ideas punted by the CEM. 
  • 19 May: Minister publicly commits to providing the NSNP to all learners when schools reopen.
    DG of DBE confirms this decision in a letter to the SA Human Rights Commission, and later on 26 May in a public meeting with civil society organisations hosted by the National Education Collaboration Trust.
  • 20 May: Standard Operating Procedures for COVID-19 in schools published, detailing guidelines for resuming the NSNP safely.
    Western Cape Guideline on school feeding circulated, indicating the province would feed all learners, including those not attending school.
  • 22 May: Limpopo circular on NSNP contradicts this, instructing NSNP service providers to cater only for grades 7 and 12 – the grades due to return to school soonest. 
  • 29 May: DBE publishes directions for the reopening of schools, prescribing 1 June as date for reopening for grades 7 and 12. 
  • 31 May: education ministers meet and delay the reopening of schools for grades 7 and 12 to 8 June 2020
  • 1 June: Minister Angie Motshekga makes a statement publicly, delaying the reopening of schools to 8 June and backtracks on commitments made prior to resume the NSNP for all qualifying learners, regardless of whether or not they had returned to school.
    • “We would have wished also even to provide nutrition for grades that we have not phased in. But I had requested the sector and the MEC[s] to say maybe we need to wait a little. Get ourselves to acclimatise to the new environment, manage that which we are still struggling to get right before we can introduce new programmes…”
    • No plans are mentioned for learners who could not yet return to school.
  • 2 June: SECTION27, EE, EELC write to Minister seeking clarity on intentions regarding the NSNP, threatening legal action if plans were not made available. In a statement released the next day, we argued that “The proposed suspension of the NSNP is a regressive measure in violation of various rights enshrined in the Constitution”.
  • 6 June: Minister responds to our 2 June letter, confirming that all learners will receive meals based on context-specific plans and it “will take a gradual process to acclimatize with the new environment.”
  • 8 June: schools reopen for grades 7 and 12 across the country, but the NSNP does not resume for learners who are at home.
    • Research from our team showed that many schools did not in fact have enough food even for the grades 7 and 12 learners who had returned. 
  • 9 June: DG presents to Command Council on state of readiness for reopening of schools, indicating that supplies of food received by schools varied from province to province. In KZN, for example, only 74 schools had received food supplies.
  • 12 June: EE and two school governing bodies in Limpopo launch an urgent application to the North Gauteng High Court [Equal Education and others v. Department of Basic Education and others 2020].
    • Testimonies given under affidavit from learners, caregivers, teachers and school governing bodies demonstrated the extent of the hunger and suffering felt in the absence of the NSNP: 
      • “I had to get a job doing gardening to earn some money to buy food. My sister and I do not have enough food at home. Without the meals from school, I could not concentrate on school work because I was hungry.” – Matric learner, Limpopo
      • “The government must also think about those learners at home. I feel bad because I am receiving meals at school while my younger sister is still struggling at home. It is not right.” – Matric Equaliser (learner member of EE), Gauteng
      • “I have been extremely stressed during this period but because I am a mother, I have to make a plan to make sure my family does not go hungry. I have had to resort to taking loans from a loan shark in order to make sure my family survives. The weight on my shoulders is heavy.” – Single mother of five, Limpopo
      • It is “unfair that some children will be able to benefit and others will not be able to” since “parents are no longer working and need the feeding scheme now more than ever”. – Grade 10 Equaliser (learner member of EE), Gauteng
  • 15-19 June: our impending legal action spurs the DBE into hurried action – On 19 June, the DBE sent a circular to all provinces compelling provincial departments to start feeding all learners from 22 June. 
    • circulars published by various provinces indicating that provinces are making plans to reinstate the NSNP for all learners on “context-specific plans”.
    • A flash survey from our team showed that this was another broken promise – that not all learners were being fed from 22 June, and that “chaos and confusion” characterised the rollout of the NSNP during the period. 
  • 2 July: court hearing of the urgent application Equal Education and others v. the Department of Basic Education and others is heard virtually by Judge Potteril. Here, we argued that the rights to basic education and basic nutrition are interdependent and that the decision not to roll out the NSNP to all qualifying learners – where plans had been made to do so safely, and promises had been made to that effect – was irrational, unreasonable and unlawful. Judgment remains reserved. 

This same day, the DBE postponed the reopening of schools for grades 1, 2, 3 and 10, with only grades R, 6 and 11 receiving the go-ahead to return to school. This further delayed the rollout of the NSNP for learners who qualified for the feeding scheme but could not return to school.

  • 15 July: the first wave of National Income Dynamics Survey – Covid-19 Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) results are released to the public. This nationally representative survey conducted by researchers across the country shows that 47% of respondents had run out of food in the month of April, and that 1 in 7 participants reported a child had gone hungry in the week prior to the survey. 1 in 13 respondents reported that a child had gone hungry for 3 or more days in a week, demonstrating a notable level of frequent child hunger in the absence of the NSNP.
Leanne Jansen-ThomasTimeline for the National School Nutrition Programme court case