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Advocacy group takes department to court over school nutrition programme

On Thursday the high court in Pretoria will hear a case by advocacy group Equal Education, which wants the court to compel the department of basic education to provide the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) to all learners — even those who have not yet returned to school. 

Since June 8 only two grades — seven and 12 —  have returned to school after they were closed on March 18. Other grades will return on July 6 and August 3, according to the Government Gazette

On June 12, Equal Education and two governing bodies of two high schools in Limpopo  approached the court on an urgent basis to get the department to provide daily meals to learners who qualify for school nutrition

The advocacy group is represented by Section 27 and Equal Education Law Centre and the respondents are Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and eight provincial MECs of education, except for the Western Cape. 

According to the founding affidavit, the Western Cape provincial government had already committed to feed learners whether they have returned to class or not. 

Equal Education’s secretary general, Noncedo Madubedube, said in the founding affidavit that the closure of schools in March also meant that the school nutrition programme was suspended and so many learners went without a daily meal. 

More than 9.6-million learners benefit from the school nutrition programme. 

Madubedube says that while at home without the daily meals provided through the  programme some learners have found it difficult to concentrate on their studies. Since schools were closed the department of basic education encouraged online learning and lessons through radio and television broadcasts. 

She further says the failure by the department to feed learners violates and breaches its obligations, such as the right of every child to basic nutrition guaranteed in the Constitution. 

“Learners feel the effects of this breach every day as hunger impacts on their ability to concentrate and learn. Any further delay in providing learners with food under the NSNP will perpetuate the violation of their constitutional rights to a basic education and to basic nutrition, and will aggravate its consequences”

Equal Education says many families had found themselves without their usual income because informal traders could not make money because of lockdown regulations and people were retrenched, which meant some households could not provide food for their children.

Madubedube says that during the lockdown some learners from the two schools in Limpopo, which are part of the application,  and their families have had to survive on donations from other family members.

“In an already poor community, parents have struggled to feed their children, and children headed households have suffered significantly.”

The chairperson of the school governing body (SGB) from one of the high schools said in court papers that the majority of learners rely on the meals provided by the school nutrition programme. 

“As an SGB, we feel bad about the situation as many of our learners are not getting food. We know that many of our learners do not get regular meals at home. They need this programme to get a meal, a day,” he said.

A parent of children from one of the schools said she had to cut off sugar and tea from her monthly groceries to stretch her food budget because her children no longer get a meal at school. 

Some learners reported eating only pap because of the cost of nutritious food. Others said they had received food parcels but that lasted for only a week. 

Equal Education says in the papers that it had written numerous times to the basic education department raising concerns that the nutrition programme was providing meals while schools were closed. 

The department is opposing the application. 

In an answering affidavit filed on June 22, director general, Mathanzima Mweli said learners who benefit from the school nutrition programme only do so when schools are open because the infrastructure for providing food is at the schools. 

He said that outside of school the department of social development steps in and assists poor families with food, which also benefits children, “but not under or in terms of the National Schools Nutrition Programme”. 

He said this had been the case during lockdown. 

Mweli added that the school nutrition programme is funded by the treasury as a conditional grant and therefore is designed to operate when schools are open and it would be unlawful to provide it when schools are not operational. 

Mweli said that on May 19 Motshekga had announced that when schools open for grades seven and 12 learners the nutrition programme will be reopened for all learners. 

He further said that on June 1, at a media briefing, Motshekga had said that regarding the nutrition programme the priority was to prepare for the two grades that returned to schools first and that preparations to offer meals to all learners might “take a little longer”.

“Although nearly all the schools were ready to commence with the National Nutrition School Programme on 8 June 2020, everyone had to adapt and adjust to a new reality and it was therefore not practically feasible to run this programme fully and comprehensively form the first day …”

It took about two weeks to iron out hiccups at the start of school, he said.  

“I am not looking for an excuse but the harsh reality is that the government does not have unlimited resources and, given the sudden and unexpected huge demand of the Covid-19 pandemic on the limited resources of this country, one of facets of that harsh realight was that we could not put all of our resources immediately and fully behind only the National Schools Nutrition Programme”

But he said provinces have given an undertaking that, by June 22, the nutrition programme would be provided to all learners who qualify for it.

In the replying affidavit, Madubedube said Mweli had failed to provide evidence that meals had been provided to all qualifying learners. And that even though he had said provinces had committed to providing  food to all qualifying learners by June 22, evidence Equal Education had provided from some provinces proved that this was not happening. 

“There is no evidence of the actual provision of meals at all to learners whose classes have not resumed. Beyond generalised statements, the respondents provide no evidence of what meals have actually been provided, and to whom they have been provided. For example, no school principal or circuit managers have made affidavits providing evidence that meals have in fact been provided.”

Madubedube said the department had had 10 days (since Equal Education filed its first papers) to produce evidence that the school nutrition programme was being rolled out to all qualifying learners and that they had failed to produce it. 

She said it was only the court that would get the department to do what it is supposed to be doing — feeding all learners who qualify for the school nutrition programme.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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