By Onyema Dike
A June 12 report by the BBC informs us that –“About 1.3m children in England will be able to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays, after a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United forward, 22, welcomed the six-week voucher for eligible children, saying: “Look at what we can do when we come together.”…Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised Mr Rashford’s “contribution to the debate around poverty”.
During the coronavirus lockdown the government was providing food vouchers to families whose children qualify for free meals. But the UK government had insisted that free meals would not continue outside of term time.
Rashford’s campaign led to a policy U-turn with the UK prime minister directing that vouchers be provided to indigent families outside school term and during the summer.
In the UK, this special Covid-19 intervention is called the “Covid Summer Food Fund” while in Nigeria a similar initiative has been dubbed the modified Home Grown School Feeding Programme and was launched in Abuja on May 14, 2020 following a presidential directive asking the minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to come up with strategies to keep school children fed during the lockdown.
Following the presidential directive the minister held wide ranging consultations with the Nigerian Governors’ Forum following which it was resolved that Take Home Rations remained the most viable option for feeding children during the lock down.
That collective decision based on a presidential directive to feed school children while at home during the pandemic seems to have become an albatross around the neck of the Honorable Minister Sadiya Umar Farouq with many traducers asking why and how school children were fed while others have bandied around figures with some alleging that N697m is being spent daily to feed “invisible’ school children.
Before we go further and because money is always at the root of many contentions let us make a quick comparison. In the UK, school children on the “Covid Summer Food Fund” get weekly food vouchers worth £15. That comes to £60 per month or N30,402. In Nigeria, the primary school pupil enrolled on the school feeding programme gets free meal worth N70 daily. Multiply that by 20 school days per month and you have N1,400.
Sadiya Umar Farouq addressed what she described as “rumours and innuendos and speculations around one of our key interventions; the Home Grown School Feeding Programme” during her briefing at the Covid-19 Presidential Task Force on August 3, 2020.
Reeling out figures and proof to show how the programme was prosecuted she noted that “it was a joint resolution of the ministry and the state governments to give out Take Home Rations and the stakeholders also resolved that we would start with the FCT, Lagos and Ogun states as pilot cases. Each Take Home Ration is valued at N4,200 and that figure was not arrived at without proper consultation. It was not invented.”
At this juncture it is pertinent to consider twocore issues attackers of the minister have with the modified school feeding programme.
The first is why feed children during the lockdown? The answer is a simple one. The president made a directive and because ministers serve at the pleasure of the president they are bound to obey directives. While that may well be the case it is important to note that Nigeria is not the only country offering Take Home Rations during the lockdown. Liberia was and the UK too.
The second issue is that of cost and a lack of comprehension amongst so called critics and commentators. The ministry had noted in a press release that it was targeting a total of 3,131,971 households under the modified Home Grown School Feeding. Using that number and the cost of N4,200 per Take Home Ration a figure of N13,154,278,200 was arrived at but what the so called critics failed to realise is that it was a target but the programme has only run in the FCT, Lagos and Ogun States and impacted only 124,589 broken down as follows: FCT 29,609, Lagos 37,589, Ogun 60,391.
If 124,589 households were impacted in 3 states at a cost of N4,200 per Take Home Ration we would be looking at a total figure of N523,273,800 far below the figures being bandied around without any iota of proof.
The case of the UK is particularly interesting because it is not a poor African country neither is it a 3rd world country. So, why is it giving out food vouchers? Because governments around the world have recognized the need for school children, especially the vulnerable, to get adequate nutrients for physical and mental development. Giving them food has also been identified as key to keeping them in school and reducing absenteeism caused by hunger.
Finally, isn’t the figure of half a billion naira too much? Well, the first thing to consider is that if there was no Covid-19 and children were still in school, they would be getting free meals but as things stand only a fraction of the budgeted sum has been spent.
But ultimately the question we may have to ask ourselves is why is it that a British child gets N30,000 per month in free meals while his Nigerian peer gets a mere N1,400. Shouldn’t we be up in arms?
Onyema Dike, a public analyst wrote in from Lagos