The excitement on their young faces was a sight to behold. They said their traditional lunchtime prayers in a rather hurried sing-song tone with many only partially shutting their eyes as the food vendors, aided by a handful of assistants, dished out hot meals into rows of plates.
The above was a scene encountered last week during a visit to St. Patrick’s Primary School, Iva Valley, in Enugu North Local Government Area. Indeed, similar such scenarios would have been playing out at about the same time in the 1,229 public primary schools in Enugu State, and across various states of the federation that signed up to the federal government’s free lunch programme for pupils.
On that Wednesday, the pupils were served a meal of rice and beans and a slice of watermelon, as the programme requires vendors to include a fruit alongside meals. It was evidently a hearty meal, for the pupils soon ran from their classrooms onto the school’s expansive field to engage in various playtime activities.
Launched by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration two years ago, the Homegrown School Feeding Programme is evolving into a potentially great story of success. The head teacher of St. Patrick’s Primary School, Mrs Odio Charity, concurs. “It has great impact on the pupils; mealtime is an exciting moment for them,” she said, adding that it has also proved to be an incentive for parents to enroll their children in public schools.
But the programme has not been without some teething problems, the most significant being the inability of vendors to consistently serve meals every school day and occasional delays in the federal government’s funds remittance to the vendors for services rendered. There has as well been grumblings about the quality of meals served with some parents even at a point instructing that their children be left out of the free meal programme. These problems were however widespread and not limited to Enugu.
But thanks to improved supervision, the programme now runs with clock-work efficiency as the initial glitches that once bedeviled it in the state and which resulted in over two weeks non-supply of meals to schools have now been resolved. The newfound efficiency was enforced chiefly by a committee member of the Homegrown Feeding Programme in Enugu State, Mrs Vera Ezeugwu.
Unlike in the past where vendors operated virtually unchecked, Ezeugwu now assigns supervisors to specific public schools across the state. Besides tasting the meals and instructing her subordinates to do same to ensure compliance with acceptable hygienic and nutritive standard, Ezeugwu’s zero tolerance for laxity means vendors who fall short of expectations are replaced. “I also taste the meals they prepare,” a teacher at the school informed the reporter, noting that such due diligence naturally “puts the vendors on their toes”.
The results of these stricter measures is the sort of improved meal quality and service witnessed at the Iva Valley-based primary school, once cited in a nationwide report which listed schools where food vendors record some of the worst performance.
Four vendors now serve 97 pupils from Primary 1 to Primary 3 which is the range the programme currently caters for. The vendors have, however, had to include an additional 45 pupils from the nursery section to their list because the infants often cried during lunchtime when they see other pupils being served meals.
Speaking on the programme’s rather abrupt break in some schools, one of the vendors at St. Patrick’s, Jacintha Ohagwu, suggested an increase in the federal government’s monthly remittance of N135,000 as it is barely commensurate to the price of food items which, according to her, “is rising on a daily basis”.
But Ezeugwu countered. The reason the vendors consider the amount insufficient is because they purchase food stuff only for the short term. “They don’t buy in bulk. They are supposed to form cooperatives so the food items would be cheaper,” she said.
The other school in Enugu mentioned in that report was Ekulu Primary School where, like St. Patrick’s, pupils were not served meals for weeks with vendors sometimes failing to turn up even after having been credited for their supplies. The introduction of similar tactics like stricter supervision and sometimes suspending guilty vendors have since restored sanity.
But despite the rising public confidence in the programme in the state which also owes its resurgence to the untiring commitment of some unsung heroes such as Ezeugwu and her tiny band of supervisors, there are a few bureaucratic safeguards introduced by the programme’s national office in Abuja that, ironically, hamper its operation in states. For instance, suspending errant vendors often seems like a logical punitive action, but it could prove quite tricky and ultimately turn out to be a shot in the foot.
According to Mr. Ifeanyi Onah, the Enugu State Programme Manager, he once found himself in such dilemma after suspending a vendor found to be serially shortchanging the system. “Given that vendors’ accounts are credited directly from the National Office, it meant she would still be paid even for the period she will be suspended,” he said. So he simply cautioned her and intensified the supervision at the school she covers.
Onah is canvassing a review of the operational guidelines of the Homegrown School Feeding Programme in a way that gives more powers to the states especially as regards withholding payments to vendors who breach the set standards. Another snag, according to him, is the failure by the Homegrown Feeding Programme’s National Office to credit the vendors’ accounts before a new payment window is due. “Gaps in payment is a major problem,” he said, adding that it is the reason behind the recent long suspension of activities witnessed across public primary schools in the state. He is hopeful the long vacation which typically runs between July and September presents a window of opportunity to resolve all such challenges that hamper the programme’s smooth running.
But in spite of these, there is a restoration of belief in the programme as parents who once grew skeptical and directed their wards to reject the meals due to their poor quality are having a change of heart. Some are in fact canvassing a widening of the programme’s scope to accommodate all pupils in public primary schools. “I have children in both lower and higher classes,” a middle-aged man explained. “So it would be a huge relief for me if my other child in Primary 5 benefits from the free feeding programme,” he said, adding that the federal government deserves commendation for the initiative.