Basic education minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: THULANI MBELE
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The coronavirus pandemic working its way through SA will have many knock-on effects, including hunger and malnutrition as
9-million children are deprived of free meals while schools are shut.

Nearly a quarter of SA’s people are school-going children enrolled in grades R-12. One of the under-celebrated achievements of the government over the last 10 years has been the mass rollout of a successful school-feeding scheme to all no-fee schools — the national school nutrition programme.

To give you a sense of just how vast that network is, of the 13-million children in school, 9-million receive a free school meal every day they are at school. Put differently, of all the weekday “lunches” eaten in SA, one in six are provided under this programme.

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The government spends R36m a day to feed these children, amounting to R7.2bn for 2020, according to the budget. The big question now is what happens to those meals and those children while their schools are shut?

I’d like to point to what we know about hunger in SA, whether the national school nutrition programme is effective, what other countries are doing, and what we should be thinking about.

First, SA schools were going to shut for the first-term holidays anyway — we just closed them three days early. Basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced that schools will be closed until April 14 — and if you count the school holidays and public holidays in that period there are only 11 school days.

While that might not sound like a lot, any extension of school closures, which seem almost inevitable now, will materially start to affect children’s nutrition and, for some, their immune systems.

The nationally representative 2018 general household survey can help shine light on the extent of hunger in SA. Three stats are telling.

When asked “did your household run out of money to buy food during the past 12 months?”, 22% of households answered yes.

For households with at least one child (17 years or younger), 16% reported that in the last year a child went hungry in that household “because there wasn’t enough food”. And 20% of households had “inadequate” or “severely inadequate” food access.

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So even with the national school nutrition programme in full-swing and 9-million children getting their meals Monday to Friday, the general household survey shows that about one in six households with children experience hunger or food insecurity.

Similarly, the national development plan (NDP) states that “stunting affects almost one in five children (18%), and ... about one in 10 children are underweight”.

There is corroborating evidence from a 2016 evaluation of the national school nutrition programme by JET Education Services. It surveyed 267 schools in 2015 and found that 4% of learners “did not eat at home last night” and 23% “did not eat breakfast”.  Encouragingly, 96% of schools did actually serve the main meal, indicating that the programme is working.

SA is not the only country experiencing this problem. According to Unesco, more than 100 countries have shut all schools as a result of the coronavirus. Most have some form of school-feeding system for selected learners and now all are scrambling to find ways of providing meals to those that rely on them.

In the US, a number of cities have implemented a “grab and go” system, where distribution points and catchment zones dictate who can collect from where.

There are still no reliable projections as to how the coronavirus outbreak in SA will unfold, but one thing is certain: there is no way in the world in which the situation will be less severe in three weeks’ time.

If schools are going to be shut for months, then provincial governments need to come up with plans for how they will help poor families. There are no plans in place for sustained school closures.

Motshekga has been quoted as saying the government will not be able to run special programmes. If the department of basic education is reneging on its responsibility, it should give the school nutrition money to a department that is willing and able to come up with a solution.

When one in five children are hungry and rely on these meals it is clear that free school meals have become part of the social infrastructure that millions of children rely on. We cannot simply ignore that because of the logistical complexities involved.

The money has already been budgeted and allocated, now provinces need to find innovative ways of getting meals to children.

• Dr Spaull is a senior researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University

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