After just about two years, Jamaican schools reopened for face-to-face learning on March 7. It was a welcome move, considering that families have been struggling with all kinds of pressures since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but learning challenges are not the only issue to be tackled as schools reopen fully — nutrition is also a big one.
The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) has taken on this long-standing concern, which is so important for the future health of Jamaicans. Hunger is a reality, and for many children, the meal they get at school is often the only one they will have for the day.
The youth-focused NGO has started an online petition advocating for the ministry of education to urgently finalise and implement the country's School Nutrition and Wellness Policy, which it said must govern the food on offer in school retail environments, including the national school feeding programme and the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), a conditional cash transfer (CCT) initiative which delivers cash grants to the most needy in society:
Whether our children are purchasing food at school, or are provided with lunch via subsidies, they deserve healthy, nutritious meals that will encourage positive food habits.
While JYAN has put forward a list of recommendations that includes a ban on fast food franchises within the school environment, the development of school food gardens, and the prioritisation of healthy lifestyle and movement initiatives, it is most concerned about the fact that the Jamaican government has plans to divest Nutrition Products Limited, the state-owned company that makes and distributes school meals:
The National School Feeding Programme, run by the Government of Jamaica through Nutrition Products Limited (NPL), is undoubtedly one of the fondest school meal traditions that many Jamaicans have. The programme is also partly responsible for the fact that child malnutrition did not increase during the 1970s, in an environment of general economic decline.
[The government's divestment of] the manufacturing and distribution aspects of NPL, signal[s] the end of a state run and funded school feeding programme. In an environment where 70% of Jamaicans do not have resources or access to safe and nutritious food, and recognizing the importance of the school feeding tradition in encouraging attendance and boosting performance, especially among the nation’s most disenfranchised, what will our future look like? What will be provided as food options for students? How will we guarantee that healthy products will be provided? Will students now have to pay for the food provided under this programme? How much will they be required to pay?
It went on to say that the decision further highlights the need to have a proper school nutrition and wellness policy in effect, in order to create meal guidelines and monitor the output of any school feeding programme suppliers. For its part, the government has said that the issue is one of capital and operational efficiency. While as many as 136,000 students across 836 schools benefit from the school feeding programme, it costs about JAD 780 million [just over USD 5 million] to run it. The plan is “to work with the private providers to meet capital costs” and improve the meal offerings.
Another facet of the issue involves alleged mismanagement. The 2020-21 Auditor General’s report pointed to major irregularities in the operations of Nutrition Products Ltd. between 2015 and 2021, including improper payments to outside interests. Education Minister Fayval Williams has gone on record as being in support of a full investigation of these breaches. In referring to the government's divestment plans, she noted that that the school meals system needs to be reformed.
However, noting that the current absence of a government nutrition policy “represents an untenable crisis,” medical student and JYAN advocate Rashaun Stewart countered:
The main constituents of the Western Pattern Diet all increase the risk of chronic illness, especially NCDs [non-communicable diseases]. From a nutritional perspective […] public health and public institutions have to combine to correct this issue before our children fall ill to preventable diseases, and we lose our vision of having a stable and healthy population […] Now, more than ever, our children’s future depends on it.