Kids suffer months of ‘agony’ after school meals cut off

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Kids suffer months of ‘agony’ after school meals cut off

We speak to some of the impoverished families whose lifeline was severed when the feeding scheme stopped

Senior reporter
David Fritz with his children, Ethan, 10, Marliney, 6, and Zaynique, 2, at home in White River, Mpumalanga. They relied on the national school feeding scheme before lockdown.
Hand to mouth David Fritz with his children, Ethan, 10, Marliney, 6, and Zaynique, 2, at home in White River, Mpumalanga. They relied on the national school feeding scheme before lockdown.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Shirley Sanderson says watching her seven young grandchildren battling hunger is “sheer agony”.

For four months the children have been unable to receive lifesaving school meals from their nearby primary school.

The school, along with thousands of others, was closed under level 5 of the lockdown, and government’s National School Nutrition Programme along with it, effectively halting meals for 9.6 million impoverished children at 20,000 of SA’s poorest schools.

Basic education department director-general Mathanzima Mweli said at the time the scheme would only resume once all schools had reopened.

But while school feeding schemes officially resumed when pupils began returning to school, many schools did not reinstate the service, or it was sporadic.

Shirley Sanderson outside her home near White River in Mpumalanga. Sanderson uses her pension money to look after her children and grandchildren.
'We split food' Shirley Sanderson outside her home near White River in Mpumalanga. Sanderson uses her pension money to look after her children and grandchildren.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

However, a Pretoria High Court ruling last week has forced the department to ensure all low-income schools offer a daily meal from Monday, whether they are open or not – and it must give Judge Sulet Potterill progress reports every two weeks.

The reintroduction of meals could not have come soon enough for Sanderson.

“We have had to ration what we have. Sometimes we have to split the food because it’s just not enough. Some eat one day and the others eat the next day,” she said.

With her three children unemployed, the family only have her R1,980 pension grant for income.

“I’m HIV positive but can’t afford transport to the clinic and to buy my family food. I have stopped collecting my medicine. When I die how will my family survive?”

Hunger and poverty aren't new for those living in and around White River, Mpumalanga.

During lockdown Andre Hattingh, founder of Pediatric Care Africa, has been feeding 2,000 children living between Mbombela and Bushbuckridge, including Sanderson’s grandchildren. Before lockdown the NGO fed 350 children.

“The food parcels we receive every two weeks from Doc [Hattingh] helps keep us alive,” Sanderson said.

The families Times Select spoke to said they were unaware that the feeding scheme was restarting on Monday.

Before lockdown Marie Engelbrecht received food parcels from her child's school.
Anxious wait Before lockdown Marie Engelbrecht received food parcels from her child's school.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

“I don’t know. It will be a godsend if it does. We need the food for our children,” said Sanderson.

Hattingh said hunger levels had spiked because of the school closures.

“I don’t know if the department will start feeding the children on Monday, but till then we will carry on as normal and feeding the children.

Magda Nell with her daughter, Christie, 11, and son GJ, 9, at home in White River, Mpumalanga.
Shut out Magda Nell with her daughter, Christie, 11, and son GJ, 9, at home in White River, Mpumalanga.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

In numbers

• 9.6 million: the number of children supported by the school nutrition programme;

• 20,000: the number of schools that run the feeding schemes.

“Daily we get 12 new calls for food. We just don’t have the means to help them all.

“It’s no longer just poor people needing food. It’s also middle-class people who have lost their jobs.”

However, Mpumalanga education spokesperson Jasper Zwane said that, where possible, pupils at home had been collecting hot meals from schools since June 22.

“Learners residing within walking distance to schools come at different times and are provided with meals at school.”

Those who lived far away, and who had to rely on pupil transport, were given food parcels.

Shaheda Omar, the director of Teddy Bear Clinic, which runs community and justice outreach programmes in Gauteng, said they were seeing “horrifying increases” in hunger in the province.

Lou Billett, chairperson of African Angels non-profit organisation in the rural Eastern Cape village of Chintsa East, described their situation as dire.

Dr Andre Hattingh from Paediatric Care Africa hands out chocolates to children in White River.
'Carry on as normal' Dr Andre Hattingh from Paediatric Care Africa hands out chocolates to children in White River.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

“Through our private school we feed 142 pupils daily. But they are not the only children living here. Another 466 go to a state school. With that school closed the situation was terrible.”

‘Unforgivable’

The legal bid to force the department to reinstate the school feeding scheme was brought by civic rights groups Equal Education and Section 27.

Equal Education spokesperson Leanne Jansen-Thomas said the scheme was unparalleled.

“The suspension of the programme horribly exacerbated child hunger. It’s unforgivable what the department has done to our children.”

She said the feedback they had received from caregivers was the concern about how their children would get to schools to collect food, given the distance many children travel.

“We believe transport should be provided and if it cannot be then arrangements should be made for children to be able to collect food from schools closest to them.

“We are also concerned by departments abdicating responsibility and saying its up to principals to ensure the children are fed. The authorities must support principals to ensure children receive food.”

Section 27 attorney Sasha Stevenson said: “The long-term health effects of the scheme’s suspension may include malnutrition and stunting. For many children whose food security has been jeopardised there’s a chance their immunity has been compromised too.

“Without access to one guaranteed meal a day from school, learners across the country are going hungry, with entire households under immense strain.”

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