It’s lunch time at Suwar Secondary School, located in the Caribbean and the children are in line eager to receive their meals. ‘Passion’ who is from a poor home gladly collects perhaps the only meal that she is guaranteed for the day.
She sits down at the cafeteria table ready to eat. Her plate is filled with white rice and fried chicken wings with gravy slathered all over and an orange soda to wash it down.
Passion quickly consumes her lunch, grateful for the meal and happy that she is no longer hungry.
What Passion does not realize is that while the meal provided helped to fill a void, it is creating another problem far greater than hunger. It is encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle.
School feeding programmes in the Caribbean, as elsewhere, have long been established and recognized as an important instrument in facilitating food, especially for poor and vulnerable school children.
While having this type of programme in and of itself is commendable, as a region we must move from merely satisfying requirements to that of providing value. It is no longer enough to provide meals but the relevant authorities must ensure that the meals served provide children with the nutrients needed for proper growth and development.
At the 2016 edition of Caribbean Week of Agriculture in Cayman Islands there was discussion surrounding the topic “Governance and Public Policy for Food and Nutrition Security, Sustainable School Feeding Programmes”.
Representatives from Brazil, St. Lucia, Jamaica and Grenada gave insight into the best practices and challenges of the school feeding programme in their respective countries.
Senior Policy Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Caribbean, Dr. Terri Raney ,who chaired the thought provoking session urged the representatives present to consider the financial sustainability of providing higher quality value foods.
The reality for many developing countries, especially those in the region is that, it is much more affordable to serve cheaper food that may not necessarily have nutrients for good health than it is to procure those foods with nutrients vital to sustain a healthy lifestyle.
Thankfully, through FAO school feeding programmes are being revised to improve the nutritional content of meals, establish linkages with local small farmers including the wider community and to install or improve school gardens.
Director of Project Management, Ministry of Education, Jamaica, Ms. Marcia Phillips-Dawkins informed that “prior to 2014 procurement for school feeding was centralized through the Ministry where the procurement involved rice, pasta, oil, canned fish and canned meats”.
These are all foods that can lead to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol.
However in 2014, after the intervention of FAO sustainable school feeding programme, procurement is now being done by the schools. This she said has allowed some of the schools especially those in the rural areas to engage local farmers to provide high quality fresh produce.
As of this academic year, some schools have been given menus to follow as a guide for meals to be served. Ms. Phillips-Dawkins said that other schools will be mandated to follow same.
In addition, with collaboration with the Ministry of Health, healthy lifestyle clubs are being established in schools with the intention that the children will be become more sensitized and aware and take responsibility for their own health.
Meanwhile, Senior Medical Officer, Ministry of Health Grenada, Dr. Francis Martin said the data on the benefits of primary or preventative healthcare is sparse and that more attention needs to be given to that area, as consuming local foods do have more benefits.
“We are hoping that people will continue to see the benefits of making an investment in health. Even though local foods are more expensive, in the long run it is going to be more beneficial to society when it comes to medical bills. The truth is we need to make a business case for it and as a region we have faltered in that,” he encouraged.
For his part, St. Lucian parliamentarian, Hon. Moses Jn. Baptiste, said the challenges rests with the decision makers, the politicians.
“When it comes to food and sugar, our politicians have not yet gathered the strength and the conviction to do it. In some countries, to cut subsidies on rice, flour and sugar is tantamount to suicide. When I was in government, we cut subsidies on refined sugar, flour and rice. I believe politicians have to be creative and do what is right,” he pointed out.
Through the work of the FAO, I remain hopeful that our children will get the quality food needed to ensure their proper growth and development and to be healthy contributory citizens of their society.
It is now in the hands of governments of the region as well as the relevant ministries to maintain and improve their school feeding programmes for the long term benefit of the Caribbean.