School feeding programme: Where is the promised free food?

With much hype, the Federal Government announced its plan to embark on providing free meals for primary school pupils nationwide. Few years into this regime, Muhammad Sabiu, Isaac Shobayo, Wole Ige and Johnson Babajide, report the successes and failures recorded thus far.

In 2004 the administration of then president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, flagged off the Home Grown School Feeding Programme (HGSF) beginning with 12 states across the six geopolitical zones of the country and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Not quite long after, the programme grinded to a halt in 10 states and the FCT, leaving only Osun and Kano states to carry on.

In 2016 the Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari, in fulfilling its campaign promises relaunched the programme in an effort to capture 12.8 million pupils by 2019. As of August 2017, the programme had reportedly reached 20,000 schools in 14 states.

According to the Federal Government, the programme was introduced as a component of the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme to boost enrolment and retention in schools among children of school age who were forced out of school by poverty and lack of proper parental care.

To the Federal Government, the programme had largely succeeded. The vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, while reviewing the success of the programme so far said: “The programme provides a social safety net that improves the health and education of the poorest and most vulnerable children. NHSGSP is among our efforts to combat poverty; it is anchored on ensuring nutrition for our children. It is our attempt to reach the family unit in very real times; we have some good work in this regard; it is currently operating in 22 states in Nigeria with 7, 487, 441 pupils as beneficiaries… it has engaged 75,330 cooks; over 8,000 persons are employed in the value chain– that helps in fighting poverty.’’

Teething problems

But has the programme recorded massive success as claimed by government? Are the beneficiaries getting the projected services funded by taxpayers? What are the challenges bedevilling the programme it?

Sunday Tribune investigations across the country showed that things were not as smooth as government claimed. For instance, it was discovered that many schools, even in states where the programme exists, are not enjoying the free feeding. Some of the schools’ officials were unwilling to volunteer information why this was so.

Sunday Tribune learnt that there were also complaints about the quality of food being served the pupils, which sources in some of the schools claimed, “leaves much to be desired”. Some states, it was discovered, had stopped the programme entirely either because they could not match their counterpart funding with the Federal Government’s or fund from the central government was not forthcoming.

There was also the issue about the monitoring mechanism to ensure the success of the programme, which it was learnt, was not available in some states, and as Sunday Tribune discovered, the mechanism is weak. Thus there is poor monitoring.

In Kaduna State, for instance, though the programme took off well in January 2016, it soon encountered a most vicious challenge and so had to be stopped just eight months later.

According to the state government, the vicious obstacle that stood in its way was funding. More than N10 billion, it claimed, was spent within the eight months that the programme ran. Sadly the state governor, Mallam Nasir el Rufai, said the programme had to be suspended because the Federal Government was not forthcoming with its counterpart funding which was put at N6.8bn. But Sunday Tribune learnt the central government had actually paid the state government half of the counterpart fund,  which was put at N3.4 billion  remaining a half.

This compelled Kaduna State, it was said, to start what was termed “partial school feeding” in January 2016, but stopped it in August.

“We had spent at least N10 billion on the school feeding for the eight months. The initial arrangement was that classes 1 to 3 pupils will be fed by the Federal Government and primary 4-6 to be under the state government.

“Thus since the Federal Government was not ready, we felt it would be unwise to go and feed classes 4-6 pupils and leave those of classes 1-3; so we fed all pupils of government primary schools for eight months.

“We hope to re-continue the school feeding programme next month. We have officials from Abuja to finish up the arrangement. We have reworked all the logistics, we have held several meetings; we are training our vendors and the consultants and we have more stakeholders involved,” the governor had explained.

However, since the suspension of the programme, it is yet to resume. The state Commissioner for Education, Science and Technology, Alhaji Jaafaru Sani, said efforts were being made towards its resuscitation, just as the Federal Government continues to assure that it would fulfill its promise of paying the balance of N3.4bn counterpart funding.

The story is almost similar in Plateau State but with a slight twist. Stakeholders confided in Sunday Tribune that as laudable as the programme  would have been, its rate of success is being hindered by poor monitoring. According to a  source close to one of the schools covered by the programme in the state, some of those saddled with the responsibility of monitoring the effectiveness of the exercise “are finding it difficult to do so, while the internal mechanism put in place is equally weak.”

Findings revealed that while some schools are already enjoying the programme, it is yet to take off in some others. But the real issue in the state is about the quality of the service being provided which is not being properly monitored to follow regulated standards.  When Sunday Tribune visited Township Primary School in Jos, it was clear that the issue of quality of service and monitoring was mentioned.

One of the teachers who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the problem. According to him, some cooks who were engaged for the programme were not putting in their best, as they perceived the exercise as a means of patronage by their party, thus presenting substandard food items.

“In some cases, the feeding is not uniform and simultaneous. In some schools, one may find pupils of Primary One being fed while their colleagues in Primary 2 or 3 are left out. It is a laudable programme but it must be properly monitored,” he said.

The Executive Assistant to Governor Simon Lalong/Focal Person on Social Investment Programme, Dr. Sumaye Fadimatu Hamza, however, saw the situation differently. While debunking the claim that not all schools were benefiting, she said the programme covers the entire 17 local government areas of the state.

According to her, 206 certified cooks were engaged to feed over 140,000 children in primary schools across the state. On the alleged sharp practices by the cooks in conjunction with the head teachers, Dr. Hamza said: “If you find that kind of situation, it means the head teacher is not monitoring the exercise. It is the responsibility of the teachers to ensure that cooks provide the food.”

The story is a little different in Benue State where there were reports of the programme achieving its objectives of boosting school enrolment, enhancing rate of retention of pupils in school and affording women and other farmers the opportunity to market their agricultural produce, thus improving their financial standing.

The focal person, Benue State Social Investment office, Mr Terhide Utaah, who spoke with Sunday Tribune through his Chief Information officer, Mr. Dan Aja, in Makurdi, said that the homegrown feeding programme had been a success. He emphasised that there had been a sharp increase in the enrolment of pupils in the participatory schools.

“As of the time we started, 243,896 pupils in public primary schools were beneficiaries and today, pupils’ enrolment had increased. As we are advancing in the programme, pupils’ enrolment kept increasing all over the state’s primary schools. And farmers, especially women, are being given opportunity to sell their farms produce because the programme was purely designed to encourage women. Many of them had secured jobs for themselves to support their family,” he stated.

Aja, however, outlined the challenges the programme has, such as lack of funds and inability to effectively monitor the progress of the programme in the rural areas owing to lack of facilities to move around. Aja further explained that while the federal government was responsible for the procurement of food items and the payment of cooks, the state government was responsible for provision of funds for monitoring/evaluation and other logistics.

“We have not actually done proper monitoring and evaluation to ascertain the performance and compliance of cooks with government directives and response of pupils and teachers to the programme. However, just recently, we were able to recruit 300 youths from the 23 LGAs to help monitor the implementation of the exercise in the state,” he said.

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One of the cooks from Ado LGA, Mrs. Ori Agbo, told Sunday Tribune that food items such as rice, spaghetti, noodles, beans, sweet potatoes, vegetable soup and at times fruits like orange and pineapple are on the menu for the pupils.

Two other cooks who spoke on condition of anonymity applauded the HGSF programme, adding that the state coordinator now supplies them with local rice for cooking, noting that such has also boosted sales of local produce.

Also, a Class 3 pupil of RCM primary school, Igumale 2, Gabriel Oche,  said he always enjoyed the meal while appealing to the Federal Government to sustain the programme which he said, had made pupils to develop more interest in school activities.

But the success recorded in Benue is not totally replicated in Osun State owing to the difficulty the caterers claimed they are facing. Though the federal government had taken over the school feeding programme which had led to increase in allowances being paid to food vendors, accessing the payment has been a source major concern.

Sunday Tribune gathered that the more than 254,000 pupils were being fed daily by over 3,007 community caterers, drawn from all the local government areas of the state, preparing varieties of foods under Osun Elementary School Feeding and Health Programme, otherwise known as O-MEALS.

The objective of the programme, before it was taken over by the federal government was to tackle the low academic performance of pupils, considering the critical role of good nutrition in the effective development of cognitive skills for students. The daily feeding allowance for each pupil in elementary classes 1,2, 3 and 4 was also increased from 50.00 to 250.00.

However, some of the food vendors, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, informed Sunday Tribune that they had been facing some challenges in getting their allowance from the government. The problem, however, is largely from their own end as some of them admitted to Sunday Tribune. They disclosed that there were disparity in the names and the details on their Bank Verification Numbers (BVN).

One of vendors from Olorunda Local Government Area said: “the federal government should take urgent steps to ensure prompt payment to food vendors. We are happy that we are earning more compared to when the state government was running the programme. The state government was paying us N16,450 per week to feed 45 primary school pupils. Now, the federal government is paying us N23, 500 per week. The payment should not be delayed to avoid failure of the scheme.”

Even Osun State deputy governor, Mrs Grace Titi Laoye Tomori, had to intervene on the issue of the food vendors recently when she admonished them to take necessary steps in correcting the issues regarding their BVN so that they could be paid on time.

Looking at the challenges facing the school feeding programme across the geo-political zones, it is clear that it still has a long way to go to achieve its desired goals. The government, for example, must solve its greatest challenges which are funding and effective monitoring to ensure standards are kept to as findings discovered in most of the states the programme is running. But how the government looks for the money to continue the programme, especially with many of the state governments pauperised and unable to meet basic obligations, is the greatest challenge it has to tackle.



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