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OP ED: The politics of food: Fighting for pupils’ right to eat

Published by News24 on 17 October 2022 

By Stacey Jacobs (Equal Education Researcher), Hopolang Selebalo (Equal Education Head of Research) and Julia Chaskalson (Research and Advocacy Officer with Section27)

Every year on 16 October, governments across the world commemorate World Food Day, to raise awareness about those who are hungry and the need to ensure access and food security for all. This is in line with achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG two) of ending hunger by 2030.

The day is also an appropriate opportunity to take stock and reflect on the hard-won victory secured by civil society organisations in guaranteeing that over nine million learners could access daily meals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a 2019 report by Statistics South Africa, more than 1.7 million households in the country experienced hunger and insufficient food access. The pandemic and lockdowns starting in March 2020 exacerbated the hunger crisis as millions of households were forced into greater economic hardship and rising food insecurity.

Going hungry

In April 2020, 47% of adults said that their family was unable to afford food, according to data from the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM). Twenty-one percent of adults reported that someone in their household went hungry between May and June 2020.

When South Africa went into lockdown and schools closed to contain the spread of the virus, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) decided to stop providing daily meals through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), failing over nine million learners who benefit from this life-saving programme. This is because, for some pupils, the only proper meal they receive is the one they get when they are at school.

The DBE unjustifiably expected learners to continue learning at home by providing reading packs but neglected to couple learning materials with adequate nutrition. The DBE failed to fulfil its nutritional commitment to learners, leaving parents and caregivers in a context where many were losing jobs and facing increased economic precarity, scrambling to feed their children.

“I’m so happy about the meals [NSNP] and appreciate them. Some of us can’t afford pocket money, and it makes us feel equal in schools.” –
Betty Mothapo, a Grade 10 EE member from Limpopo.

The DBE’s decision to suspend the programme at this crucial time raised outcries from education rights activists—including Equal Education (EE), Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) and Section27—which resulted in a legal battle in the Gauteng High Court in July 2020. The court case highlighted the importance of school meals for children’s schooling experience and learning, in addition to the crucial benefits to their health and wellbeing.

Evidence brought to the court also showed how important the NSNP is to families and school communities as a form of social protection, with caregivers testifying about the additional hardship experienced by breadwinners to provide meals to learners that they had ordinarily received at school.

Fortunately, the High Court ruled against the DBE and instructed them to reinstate school meals for all qualifying learners, whether they were physically at school or learning from home. Additionally, the provincial education departments and the DBE were required to submit monthly reports on the progress made in providing meals.

The judgment was both an opportunity to show the connection between the constitutionally guaranteed rights to basic education and food, as well as a victory in securing the nutrition rights of millions of learners nationwide.

“When I get enough food, I have the strength to be at school…I can concentrate, and I can be me. The pap and beans are my favourite, but I do wish they would give more food…” – Tumelo Mlangeni, a Grade 10 EE member from KwaZulu-Natal.

EE, EELC, and Section27 surveyed EE pupil members, school principals, and caregivers several times throughout 2020 and 2021 to check whether pupils were in fact, receiving meals. In a September 2020 survey of 125 learners, 99 pupils said they attended school only on some days (rotational timetable system), with 71 of these pupils reportedly not receiving school meals on days that they had to learn at home.

Again, in an October 2020 survey, 135 of 144 learners attending school on a rotational basis reported not receiving the NSNP when they were learning from home. While meals were reportedly provided at schools, the lack of scholar transport on days that pupils were required to stay home prevented many from accessing the meals. To the detriment of learners, the distribution of meals and other alternative arrangements like food parcels or ‘skaftiens’ proved problematic.

Improvement in children getting meals

Our survey of over 300 learners in March 2021 and 44 parents in June 2021 somewhat confirmed the DBE’s report that pupils were still not receiving the NSNP meals as they should, leaving caregivers to cover the shortfall. Parents described having to borrow money from loan sharks to buy food and their children looking for part-time work instead of doing school work to contribute to household income. A separate survey of officials at 53 schools in June 2021 revealed that while 52 of the schools were implementing the NSNP, learners in 26 of the schools were not receiving meals while on rotation.

In July 2021, the court was approached once more in an effort to persuade education departments to create suitable plans and strategies for feeding all qualified students due to the NSNP rollout’s ongoing difficulties. Education departments agreed to create rollout plans that are responsive to shocks to the basic education sector as part of the out-of-court settlement of the case. A significant improvement was noted in the provincial progress reports submitted in August 2021, as approximately 95% of the eligible learners were receiving their meals.

Consistent monitoring by civil society ultimately strengthened service delivery and ensured that meals reached the learners who needed them when it mattered. What’s clear is that two years after the important High Court judgment, the NSNP is still crucial for learners themselves and offers a buffer for their households, which are often experiencing hunger.

World Food Day should serve as a poignant reminder to the government of its responsibility to ensure no person is left behind amid ongoing local and global challenges.

Leanne Jansen-ThomasOP ED: The politics of food: Fighting for pupils’ right to eat