Help the hand that rocks the cradle
The total number of children enrolled in our Jamaican public pre-primary, primary, andsecondary schools is approximately 491,429.

The saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” is an important reminder about developing a child's character. The person who nurtures, protects, and cares for a child determines that child's potential value system, ultimately influencing the type of society that the next generation will create.

Most would agree that our women and mothers are the primary caregivers of our children. However, globally women are much more likely to live in extreme poverty than men. Furthermore, of the 690 million food-insecure people worldwide, 60 per cent are women and girls. (World Food Programme, USA)

Not having food or enough food to eat can cause immense emotional and physical trauma. In 2019 UNICEF declared that nearly half of the world's children under five years (approximately 340 million) suffer from hidden hunger, a lack of essential nutrients that goes unnoticed and is detrimental to their positive growth development.

Furthermore, one in three children also has maladjusted growth due to malnutrition. This malnutrition can cause permanent, widespread damage to a child, especially in the first three years of their lives, leading to bad performance in school due to poor brain development, absenteeism because of sickness, and possible blindness with vitamin A deficiency.

Almost one in five children under five years in Latin America and the Caribbean were either stunted, wasted, or overweight, while four in 10 children under five in the region suffered from deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, such as iron and iodine, further undermining their growth. (The State of the World's Children, 2019)

Former United States Surgeon General Dr Nadine Burke Harris concludes that if children are persistently exposed to trauma and go untreated, the results will be harmful to their adult health. In addition, post-traumatic toxic stress manifestations in children can likely lead them to become violent adults. Health problems associated with various forms of malnutrition affect the global economy by US$3.5 trillion annually. (UNICEF, 2019)

In Jamaica, food shortages and food insecurity are a reality for poor, low-income families and women — who were the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic, with 59 per cent and 53 per cent losing employment. In 2020, the pandemic's socio-economic impact of having less or no food became an awful reality for many of our female-headed households and homes with at least one child. ( Forbes, 2021)

Since then, many of our women have been struggling to get back on their feet economically, adjusting to several unforeseen factors which the pandemic presented. With inflation driving up the cost of food, countless mothers find it impossible to buy food to feed themselves and their children.

Every child has basic survival needs to grow and flourish, and the right to food is a fundamental human right. Therefore, Goal #2 of the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals speaks directly to ending hunger and improved nutrition.

Cost of nutrition

The total number of children enrolled in our Jamaican public pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools is approximately 491,429 ( Economic and Social Survey Jamaica, 2020). Now that face-to-face classes have formally resumed, it means more logistical costs for their attendance, including transportation and lunch money.

Most rural mothers explain that the prices for a cooked lunch meal for their primary school child are now $350 and $550 for their high school child, which does not include a drink. Additionally, some children may need to be supplemented with a snack depending on their hours at school. Many tell me they simply cannot find the funds to give their children. A child will find it hard to focus and learn if hungry at school. Therefore, how can we ensure that our children are healthy and robust to learn at school?

In 2019, the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) conducted a 'Global Survey of School Meal Programmes' to collect and analyse key information on school-feeding programmes from over 100 countries worldwide. The study found that 85 countries operated large-scale school-feeding programmes, which assisted an estimated 297.3 million children of all ages in receiving food at school through the programmes. Jamaica was not a part of the survey.

Ninety-three per cent of these programmes were designed to meet the educational goals of the children. In comparison, 88 and 73 per cent were targeted to meet the child's nutritional well-being and ensure food access to vulnerable children.

Jamaica maintains a school-feeding programme through the Ministry of Education and Youth for vulnerable students. This year the Government allocated $7,092,969,000 to provide “at least one cooked meal per day to students in recognised basic, infant, primary, all-age, and secondary schools. The objectives of the programme are to encourage regular school attendance and to provide nutritional support to the most vulnerable students attending public institutions”. (Estimates of Expenditure 2022/2023, Jamaica)

Nearly 79 percent of this allocation or $5.575 billion provides breakfast and cooked lunch programmes for Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) beneficiaries, with $1 billion to support the Nutritional Product Limited (NPL) and the administrative costs of the School Feeding Unit to prepare the meals for the students and $129.3 million for school feeding assistance.

I spoke to several rural school principals who advised that they receive roughly between $120 to $150 per child as a PATH subsidy for a lunch meal. However, the child is expected to pay the difference in the meal cost, which most do not have, so the schools find ways to assist. Furthermore, they say more and more children who are not PATH beneficiaries come to school hungry seeking food.

What will it take to provide standardised nutritious meals to 491,429 schoolchildren?

Nutrition Products Limited (NPL) is fully subsidised by the Ministry of Education and provides 18,967 reduced-sugar bullas and buns with nutri spring water and fruit juice to needy students in 377 public schools and roughly 20,000 breakfasts solutions (muffins/cheese bread/porridge).

Most schools purchase their food supplies from retail outlets, while others subcontract their canteens to private operators. Suppose schools within a parish were to consolidate their demand, have large food distributors tender for supplies, and have these goods delivered to them. In this case, it could provide savings up to 25 per cent with beneficial nutrition and no other requirement other than creating standardised menus and quantities. Moreover, this system of consolidated purchase would also add value to local community farmers by providing them with a constant market for their goods.

Schools, universities, and institutions in the United States already utilise this system to purchase their supplies from large food companies such as CISCO, US Foods, and Chaney Brothers.

Let us commit to erasing hunger from most of our children's everyday reality by providing them with nutritious meals at school. By doing this, we will not only improve their overall emotional, physical, and educational well-being, but we will assist with healing the family dynamics in the home by giving mothers more peace of mind.

Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People's National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.

Lisa Hanna

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