There was an air of excitement among the children as the bell rang signalling the period for their recess. Neatly dressed uniformed women, with aprons gathered around large plastic warmers, dished out food in small bowls in fulfilment of a daily ritual of feeding school children for whom billions of naira have been provided as part of a federal government programme to provide a meal for children in primary schools from classes 1-3.
The day’s menu had rice and stew with banana to go with it. The children, pupils of the Ansarudeen Elementary School in Osogbo, Osun State, stayed quiet as the plates hit the top of their desks. They would not eat until they prayed in chorus, thanking God for providing the meal and praying for those who have nothing to eat.
For most of the children, eating what they consider a good meal every day in school free of charge is fun, compelling them every school day to a place they hitherto considered boring and tiring.
Although school feeding is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria, its revival by the Muhammadu Buhari administration has been highly commended. Its main philosophy is developing the child’s total mental and physical wellbeing through the provision of one rich meal a day. This was part of the campaign promise made by the president and his team while canvassing votes ahead of the 2015 elections.
Despite an initial pussyfooting on the part of the federal government towards fulfilling the promise, the programme eventually got underway in January this year. It commenced in three pilot states – Osun, Anambra and Kaduna – under the supervision of the federal government.
However, Osun had been executing the programme for several years, while Kaduna State started the programme one year earlier than the kick-off by the federal government.
The initiative, known as the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme, NHGSF, is projected to provide 1.14 million jobs across the country, with the engagement of community women as cooks. It is also expected to boost food production and stimulate an investment worth N980 million, annually.
Tagged the “Buhari food for the children,” the programme, when fully operational, is expected to cover no fewer than 10 million primary school pupils from classes 1-3, while another five million pupils in primaries 4-6 would be covered by state governments through a counterpart funding arrangement.
Figures from the states however revealed that the number of pupils is on the increase due to enrolments and might double in the next two sessions with the current rate of increase.
For instance, Kaduna State witnessed an increase of 400,000 pupils just after one session of operating school feeding.
Although in 2016, the Office of the Vice President announced that N93.1 billion from the budget had been set aside to take care of the feeding programme, actual disbursement commenced in earnest in January 2017.
Earlier in the year, the government said it had released N375,434, 870 to pay 7,909 cooks in five states for the feeding of a total of 677,476 primary school pupils. The states were Anambra, Ogun, Oyo, Osun and Ebonyi.
However, by the end of April 2017, Zamfara and Enugu commenced the programme, therefore bringing the number of states to seven. Altogether, about 8,587 schools are currently involved in the programme while 11,847 cooks have been employed.
The federal government has so far disbursed about N2 billion to participating states for the programme and other states like Delta are gearing to join the initiative.
However, PREMIUM TIMES investigations revealed that besides Osun and Kaduna states, other states involved only satisfied themselves with the federal provisions made for feeding primaries 1-3, while the pupils in other classes were left unattended to.
The federal government’s feeding rate per child is N70. The cooks have grappled with the amount since the recession set in. Findings from three states – Osun, Anambra and Kaduna – showed that the general quality and quantity of the food served have been affected by the current economic downturn.
The food vendors contracted to feed the children are calling for an increase in the amount earmarked for each child to at least N100, to enable them provide enough and quality food for the children.
The vision of the programme is to reach all primary school pupils, but at the moment only about 50 per cent of the target population is benefiting from it. Many states are currently facing low revenues resulting in the backlog of unpaid workers’ salaries. As a result, the federal government risks going it all alone.
Also, the head teachers in schools operating nurseries are grappling with the problem of weeping children who think they were wrongly excluded from the scheme. A good number of them are noticed at every break time hanging by the windows of their older colleagues, seeking to be part of the eating ‘party.’
With the programme now stimulating increased enrolments in public schools and the hiking of food prices, including the call to include other categories of children, the funding profile is expected to double in months ahead as the government works to keep the programme afloat.
OSUN FOOD VENDORS ASK FOR MORE
The Osun School Feeding Programme stands out as the forerunner to the federal government’s intervention. The state first introduced the scheme in 2006 with about 2,500 pupils. The Programme Officer, Olubunmi Ayoola, said that at the time, the rate was N30 per pupil.
“Then the menu was not as rich as what we have now,” she told PREMIUM TIMES in Osogbo.
The programme was relaunched on April 30, 2012, with an increase in the funding. At the moment, a total of 3,007 food vendors are involved in cooking and serving food at the elementary schools in the state. The state began with the feeding of pupils from primaries 1-3, however those in grade 4 have now been included.
What it means is that while the federal government programme covers pupils from primary 1-3, Osun provides for one additional class, which was part of its arrangement before the intervention.
Before the intervention of the federal government, the programme was funded by the local and state governments on a 60-40 basis. The local governments were paying more because primary education constitutionally falls within their purview.
The food items approved by the Osun government for the menu list include rice, beans, bread, corn food, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs vegetables and fruits.
Mrs. Ayoola confirmed that before the advent of the Buhari school feeding scheme, Osun paid N65 per pupil, but with the intervention of the federal government, the amount has risen to N70. As at March 2017, the state government was yet to begin the implementation of N70 approved by the federal government.
PREMIUM TIMES findings showed that what gets to the caterers is N41 per pupil.
According to Mrs. Ayoola, the balance goes to the “contractors” who supply the beef, chicken and fish used by the food vendors. With the N70 per pupil fee, the food vendors are expected to have a slight increase to N42.5k per pupil.
As part of its contribution to the scheme, the government trained the food vendors on hygiene, gave them aprons, assisted them in acquiring decent cooking materials and supports them with N4,000 each as transport allowance.
Our investigation also showed that Osun started receiving funds on the scheme from the federal government on January 23 and had received N466.3 million in four tranches by April.
The funds are paid fortnightly and directly to the accounts of the food vendors and the contractors by the federal government.
The first payment for the first week was N92,425,450; the second tranche was N98,474,700; the third payment was N78,464,884 and the fourth was N98,474,400.
OSUN SCHOOLS FEEDING
PREMIUM TIMES visited some of the primary (elementary) schools to observe the feeding process. The head teachers expressed satisfaction with the quality of food served by the vendors and lauded their compliance with the standards set by the state government. But a common refrain was the complaints by the vendors of the need for an increase in the rate per child from N70 to about N100.
Inspectors were appointed to check the food quality before they are served, while the vendors were provided with a uniform set of plates for serving the children.
The Head Mistress at the Ansarudeen Elementary School, Osogbo, Faloni Sola, told this newspaper that some of the food vendors had laid complaints of the price of food stuff in the market, which is affecting their ability to deliver the quality of food required.
The leader of the caterers at the school, Ganiyat Salau, said an increase in the amount given for each pupil, which is N41, would be appreciated to enable her and her colleagues do better.
Vendors at the African Church Elementary School, Oke-Ila, Irepodun Local Government Area and Union Baptist Government Elementary School, all in Osogbo, also expressed dissatisfaction with the amount given to them. They said they would prefer an increase in the amount received and the right to purchase their fish and beef directly rather than receiving them from suppliers.
That was also the situation at A.U.D Erin Elementary School, Osun, Irepodun LGA, where the vendors revealed that they had not received fish and beef or chicken from the suppliers for a while because of the difficulties posed by the channels of receiving the items.
“They were supposed to give us chicken and fish, but we have not received it for some time now, and the last time the one they brought was very bad, we could not use it for our cooking,” one of the vendors told PREMIUM TIMES.
They also said complaints had been lodged at the appropriate quarters to rectify the problems, although it was taking too much time to rectify the problem.
Omowumi Fakayode, head of the vendors at the African Church Elementary School, said chicken and fish were no longer regularly supplied by the contractors because of the state of things.
“We need the money increased to N100. We need enough fish. We have complained to the Head of Planning and she promised to do something about it,” she said.
“Sometimes pupils eat without meat on their food. Eggs are no longer served. It has been stopped.”
She also revealed that some parents bring their pupils without given them breakfast, hoping the children would eat in school.
“We often hear them saying they have stomach pain and when asked what was the matter, they would say their parents did not give them breakfast,’ Ms. Fakayode said.
A grade 4 pupil of the school, Sadiat, who spoke to this newspaper after a meal, said she would want the government to continue the programme because it had relieved her parents and improved their health. She said the food served to them was nutritionally balanced.
“We hope that this will continue because we are happy about it. We feed well and we don’t have to spend money to buy food and we don’t have to bring food from home to school,” she said.
But Mrs. Ayoola, the program officer, believes that N70 was good enough at the start of the feeding programme, noting that it was better than what obtained hitherto. She said it was the reason the food vendors were linked with cooperatives so they could buy food items in bulk and at cheaper rates.
“The programme is popular among parents and vendors alike. Some of the vendors and farmers are graduates without jobs before they were hired and now they have something doing,” she said.
“The children are also enthusiastic, we even hear it being said jokingly that some pupils don’t want to be promoted from the elementary schools just to keep eating the meals.”
But a parent criticised the programme, saying although food was provided for the children, the management of the programme did not give room for transparency.
Emmanuel Ogunyemi, who is also a teacher, suggested that the school feeding programme should be managed by a separate agency populated by private individuals, rather than a department of government.
“A situation where the government says it spent N1billion and you don’t have any way of verifying that claim is a serious problem of the feeding programme which can be resolved by have a separate agency run by private individuals who would be supervised by the government,” he said.
“We have a problem where most vendors were selected based on political consideration rather than competence.”
NURSERY PUPILS CRY FOR FOOD IN ANAMBRA
The Anambra school feeding programme started in December 2016. Although the federal government envisaged the participation of 937 cooks to feed 96,489 pupils, the state government has, at the moment, 1,065 caterers handling a far more number than earlier envisaged by the government.
Officials say the figure is steadily on the increase and they were yet to ascertain the current figure.
Included in the feeding menu are rice, beans, yam porridge, plantain, Okpa, moi moi with eggs, and vegetables. Although beef and chicken are not added in the menu, it was gathered that “dried fish” were used to cook the meals to enrich the quality and pieces of “iced fish” are served only with rice.
The vendors received training on hygiene and the standard requirements in executing the programme before the commencement.
Nearly all the schools visited had identical problem of the exclusion of the nursery classes from the feeding programme.
At Igodima, St. Mary’s, Amamife and St. Peter’s Primary Schools in Awka, head teachers complained that children from the nursery classes insist they partake of the feeding, joining the benefitting classes during break time.
“Sometimes they come to me and start crying that they were hungry and should be given food when they see the other benefiting children being served food,” Edith, one of the head teachers, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“I sometimes had to appeal to the other pupils to share with them so they can stop crying.
“So, the real issue is that the government should include the lower categories and nursery children to make it more inclusive.”
Some of the kids said they were happy to have to be fed in school daily. They also said they liked the food.
A primary three pupil, Chinyelo Okafor of the Amamife Primary School, said she would want the government to continue with programme and include other classes in the feeding.
“The food is good and our parents are not spending money again to buy us food in the school,” she said.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited some of the schools as the second term drew to a close, the feeding had stopped two weeks to vacation.
The vendors who spoke to our reporter, said payments did not come as expected and so there was no way feeding could take place.
One of the vendors, who gave her name simply as Blessing, said payments to the caterers had been faltering toward the end of the second term. She lamented the development, saying it was worrisome.
She also said there was a need to scale up the pricing of a meal for the children, as the N70 cost was unrealistic.
“You know the situation of things in the market right now. When the programme started, we did not know that the price from food in the market will become so high,” Blessing said.
“If they can increase it, we will be able to provide the kind of food that will be enough for the children.”
Chinwe Iwuchukwu, the coordinator of the programme in the state and the Focal Person for the Anambra School Feeding Programme, said the home-grown school feeding programme had stimulated increase in enrolment in the primary schools and this has in turn stretched logistics, putting more pressure on school facilities currently available.
“This means that we will need more teachers, more classrooms and more seats and desks for use in the schools and this is going to cost a lot of money,” she said.
Ms. Iwuchukwu, who is also the Senior Special Assistant to the governor on Donor Agencies, stated that with the increase in the number of the pupils, whose current figure is yet to be officially ascertained, more caterers would need to be hired and this would also mean an increase in the funding from the federal government.
By the end of March, 2017, Anambra state had received over N200 million from the federal government in the prosecution of the scheme. Ms. Iwuchukwu said the funds were paid directly to the caterers through their respective bank accounts.
However, the coordinator explained that there were issues of BVN with some of the caterers which made it impossible for their accounts to be credited, noting that the issues would be rectified before resumption for third term in May.
On the inclusion of the nursery classes, she said the government was thinking about it, and would do so once funding issues were straightened out.
“It is our pan to include all the children, we are making plans and once we have the backup we will include all others,” she added.
On the complaints by vendors and their call for an increase in the amount for feeding a child, Ms. Iwuchukwu said the state has no power to change the price.
“For now, we cannot change the amount, this is because it is a federal government programme,” she said.
Ignatius Onuora, a parent, lauded the federal government’s feeding programme. His concern however is the need to include all the school children, rather than feeding only a few of them.
“If they (government) really want to do this thing, they should bring every child on board, that is when the impact will be much felt,” he said.
“They cannot say they don’t have the money, if you consider what is happening in the country today and the amount of money available to be stolen, you will know that if these children are well fed in schools, it will be a way of contributing to the development of their future.”
EARLY START, QUICK ENDING IN KADUNA
The All School Feeding Programme of Kaduna State, as its name implies, includes all children from the “Early Years” category or what is normally called the Nursery, as well as pupils in Primaries 1-6.
After running the programme for 36 weeks, the Kaduna State Government suspended it, blaming the federal government for failing to meet its own part of the bargain, which is to provide part of the funds for the programme.
The state government claimed it spent a total of N9.5 billion in running its school feeding programme, with a monthly cost of N1.1 billion during the period.
After reconciliation with the Office of the Vice President, which coordinates the programme, a total sum of N6.8 billion was arrived at as what was spent by the state government on feeding primaries 1-3, the categories covered by the federal government’s initiative.
While announcing the suspension of the feeding programme in January, Governor Nasir El-Rufai said his government was feeding 1.8 million pupils daily, but had to stop the programme because the Office of the Vice President was yet to reimburse the state with the sum spent so far.
He also said that the programme would not commence until a review was done and the reimbursement was made.
However, during enquiry by PREMIUM TIMES, state officials confirmed that a part of the money had been paid.
“We have received half of that amount as refund from the federal government, that is N3.4billion, we are expecting that the rest will be paid soon before the programme is restarted in the state,” the Permanent Secretary, Kaduna State Ministry of Education, Adamu Mohammed Mansur, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Findings showed that the state is gearing for even an increased number of children in the coming session, having witnessed about 400,000 more registered children in the beginning of the current session after the school feeding programme started.
It was gathered that at the start of the session, the nursery and primary schools had a total of 1.4 million children. Before the programme was suspended in January this year, the number had risen to 1.8 million from about 4,284 schools.
With the expected increase, the state government made a budget of N14 billion provision for the programme in its N215 billion 2017 Budget.
The state also had a total of 13,600 caterers, who helped to execute the cooking and feeding of the pupils, but has now increased that number of the food vendors to 20,000 ahead of the plans to restart the exercise. This is even as their training has also been scheduled.
The focal person in the state’s food programme, John Gora, said the vendors were currently undergoing screening at the bank in charge, FCMB Plc., while the process of verifying their BVN was also ongoing.
“Once all that is concluded and with the expected payments made, we should be ready to resume the exercise, maybe in a week or two,” Mr. Gora said.
KADUNA VENDORS AND FEEDING COST
The vendors were initially enthusiastic about their participation in the programme. They saw it as a rare privilege to be gainfully employed at a time when the nation was facing hard times. The government then fixed the sum of N50 for feeding a pupil per day.
This newspaper learnt that the payments were made through cooperatives to the vendors who collect the money in cash. They received the payments every Thursday or Friday to enable them prepare for the following week. They soon realised that the amount was insufficient to provide the quality of food demanded by the government. The price of goods in the market had skyrocketed; a mild agitation ensued leading to an upward review by the state government. Shortly before the exercise was put on hold, food vendors got N70 as fee per pupil.
A vendor, who would not want to be named because of fear of reprimand, said the N50 was grossly inadequate at the time for a meal per child.
“To say the fact, how can you give N50 for a meal in the present hardship and the cost of food in the market? We are happy that they saw reasons to increase it especially now that the federal government has intervened,” she said.
“And you know we are still facing high cost of food in the market and what we get is even something we are managing, at least it is better than nothing.”
The vendors will now key into the federal government’s plan of receiving the monies directly from the Office of the Vice President through their personal accounts.
Mr. Mansur, however, noted that Kaduna State would prefer that the federal government pays the funds through the state government rather than paying directly to the vendors.
“The federal government should have confidence in the states, because they are the ones who will monitor the effectiveness of the programme,” he said.
According to Mr. Mansur, the states would certainly be responsible in ensuring that their pupils are well fed and provided for, knowing that Kaduna State has its own programme to feed the school children.
Despite the initial excitement, the pupils have waited in vain for six months for the return of the meals. They now go to school every school day with an uncertain expectation, as no one is telling them when the government will make good its promise to provide the food that it believes would develop their brains and make them grow well.
“I don’t know when they will start bringing food to us again,” a female pupil encountered by our correspondent at LEA Primary School, Maiduguri Road, said. “I believe it will return, but I don’t know when.”
She also explained that they (pupils) have returned to the old ways of taking money from their parents to buy snacks in school and in some cases, bringing their meals from home.
A parent, who gave his name as Ibrahim, told PREMIUM TIMES that there was a need to resume the school feeding if the government has the money to do so.
“Feeding children in school every day is a very good thing for us and we hope it will continue because the relief we get as parents of children in public schools,” Ibrahim said.
He, however, advised the government to stop the programme completely if it has no money to fund it instead of ridiculing itself.
“But there is really no need to start what you cannot finish. If the government realises that it cannot do it, then it should focus on other things that matter to the people that it can effectively execute.”
VICE PRESIDENT’S OFFICE CLARIFIES
The Office of the Vice President which coordinates the school feeding expressed its preparedness to tackle the funding challenges arising from the implementation of the programmers.
It said it was aware of the huge financial burden involved and was making plans to address other difficulties noticed during the initial roll out.
The Senior Special Assistant to the Vice President on Media, Laolu Akande, told PREMIUM TIMES that it was a remarkable achievement on the part of the federal government to have been able to provide the funding for the programme in spite of the current recession.
He, however, ruled out any immediate expansion of the coverage of the programme, saying the government would stick to funding the feeding of pupils from primaries 1-3 because of the huge cost involved in including other classes.
“Resources are limited. That we are able to come up with this kind of money is really commendable, but it is because we are really committed to executing this programme,” Mr. Akande said.
“We will meet the challenges in terms of keeping the programme going, but what we are able to do for now is primary 1-3.”
On the delay in reimbursing Kaduna State, he said arrangements were underway to fully reimburse the state. He commended the state for starting the programme much earlier before the official roll out. He assured that whatever states had expended would be refunded to them.
Mr. Akande also said there is no possibility of increasing the price of feeding each child, which currently stands at N70 per pupil, saying it took the collaboration and inputs from all stakeholders before reaching the pricing of the meals. He said to change that now would not be possible.
According to him, the vendors were not supposed to go to the open market to purchase the food items, but were expected to be linked up with local food producers who would sell to them directly in bulk at cheaper rates to enable them deliver on the price agreed.
The vice president’s spokesperson, however, admitted that the increased enrolment in schools following the start of the school feeding exercise would raise the expenses of government.
“The increased school enrolment is a good thing, we expected that. We expect that the federal, state and local governments will rise to the challenge,” he said. “Expenses will rise certainly, but we will meet the challenge.”
This article is a product of a partnership between PREMIUM TIMES and #Buharimeter to fact-check the federal government’s school feeding programme.
#Buharimeter is an initiative of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and the Department for International Department (DFID).
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...