BY TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA
WITHOUT minding the presence of The Guardian, pupils of the nine public primary school in Ejigbo area of Lagos State whacked the meal of bread, butter, milk and chocolate provided for them by chairman of Ejigbo Local Council Development Area (LCDA), Kehinde Bamigbetan. Incidentally, it was the last free meal for the 2010/11 academic session that Friday.
The meal was served in medium-sized bowls and most of the pupils were through with it within 15 minutes. One of them, Jamiu Musa, said he had come to school without money for lunch.
“Whenever I eat in the morning, my mummy does not give me money for lunch in school. She tells me that I will eat when I return home in the afternoon. But if I do not eat in the morning before coming to school, she will give me N10 to buy food during break,” he said.
Asked what he usually buys with the N10, Musa said, “I always buy rice from Iya Olounje (the food seller) and my teacher gives me water to drink. If I did not buy rice, he would buy popcorn and groundnut,” he said.
Jamiu is not alone in the poverty ring. Another pupil, Risikat Agbaje, who said she enjoyed the meal given to her in school, said her mother did not give her the usual N10 for lunch that day because she had learnt from her teachers that free lunch would be provided for the students.
Investigations revealed that unlike their contemporaries in private primary schools, most pupils in state-owned primary schools in Lagos state do not go to school with their lunch packs or money to buy snacks during break. The few of them who go to school with money do not have more than N10 to spend on snacks.
This raises the issue of the school meal programme, which has been used as a publicity stunt by few governments to show that they have the interest of the pupils in their schools at heart.
Although the school meal programme has been used as a tool to encourage increased enrolment in state schools in other parts of the world, it is yet to be seen as a veritable means of boosting enrolment and nutrition needs of pupils in Nigeria.
Therefore, most pupils arrive school hungry and teachers are left to impart knowledge into boys and girls, who spend the whole day daydreaming about good food.
Aside the once-a-week feeding programme by Ejigbo LCDA, Feed-A-Child is a private initiative and social responsibility project of The King’s School, Gbagada, Lagos. The school in collaboration with well-meaning individuals and corporate organisations organise a series of feeding programmes for children in selected public schools within Gbagada and Bariga.
Previous administrations had in the past tried in vain to kick-start the programme. In 2004, the state government inaugurated a plan to provide free meals to children of less-privileged parents, who do not enjoy balanced meals at home. The government had said it allocated N1 billion for the programme in all its 913 primary schools and it was part of the state’s school health scheme.
The government said it would collaborate with the United Nations International Children Education Fund and other world donors, who had shown interest in the programme. The pilot phase was to begin with primary one, while pupils of other classes would follow. In fact, a visit to the website of the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that school meal scheme is listed as one of the poverty alleviation programmes of the state government.
“Primary and secondary school pupils are the targets of the school health initiative, which encompasses immunization, de-worming exercise, public education and provision of First Aid kits to schools to be added to free meals for every school child,” it says.
However, many of the pupils are still hungry and malnourished, and to some of them, clean uniform and new notebooks are no longer a priority, but good food to stem the constant hungry pangs in their stomachs.
Inaugurating the School Feeding Programme in September 2005, former President Olusegun Obasanjo said “I foresee a day when Nigeria will be a nation with well nourished and healthy children, happy and eager to attend school and complete their basic education in a friendly, conducive, attractive and stimulating learning environment.”
Sadly, even the federal government’s initiative has not stood the test of time. The school feeding programme, which was inaugurated in 12 states across the country in conjunction with UNICEF, was aimed at providing one meal per day for all pupils during school days.
It was expected to improve the nutritional status of school children, as well as increase their enrolment, retention and completion rate in primary schools, and therefore contribute to the Universal Basic Education Programme (UBEC).
In a chat with a teacher at the Fadu schools complex in Ejigbo, Mrs. Aderonke Iyabo said it was unfortunate that most pupils go to school hungry as their parents cared less about ensuring that they had food in their stomachs before leaving home in the morning.
“It is only teachers who can tell you what they face in caring for these children. They are so hungry that you cannot even force them to learn anything in class. It has reached a level that teachers sometimes have to give these pupils money, especially the bright ones, to at least buy snacks to hold their stomachs until school is over.”
Iyabo urged government at all levels should take up the initiative of implementing the school health programme, as it would eventually lead to better grades.
However, researchers at Yale School of Medicine have found that learning may be best on an empty stomach. They found evidence that a hormone produced in the stomach directly stimulates the higher brain functions of spatial learning and memory development, suggesting that we may learn best on an empty stomach.
Speaking with The Guardian, the state Commissioner for Health, Dr. Jide Idris, said government was still working on the logistics for the implementation of the school meal programme.
“The cost implication is high and the population of the pupils too is high. This is why the programme is yet to materialise. It is also why we started with the school milk programme. The main problem is the cost but we are collaborating with the Ministry of Education and we have contacted other international agencies. We hope we will get a favourable response from them,” Idris said.