The Federal Government will resume the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) across the country by February. Speaking at the fourth annual review of the programme in Abuja recently, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouk, said additional five million pupils would be added to the scheme and expressed hope that the programme would lead to increment in school enrolment.
There is no doubt that the programme is laudable. Of particular importance is the nutritional value it gives to the beneficiaries. Schoolchildren need good nutrition to develop properly and be able to face the rigours of school work. It also motivates children to embrace schooling. This is why the programme is implemented in different African countries such as Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. Worldwide, over 300 million schoolchildren reportedly benefit from the school feeding programme.
Nevertheless, we think that it should have been put on hold for now so as to fill some missing links. For instance, the quality of the food given to the children reportedly did not meet the required standard. Besides, at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown last year, some countries suspended the programme. South Africa is a typical example. But the Federal Government commenced the implementation of what it called modified home-grown school feeding programme in some states of the federation. It was on the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari, who reasoned that many schoolchildren from vulnerable homes might still suffer from hunger while staying at home during the lockdown.
Sadiya Farouk had also explained that the Federal Government decided to go ahead with the programme during the lockdown because of its commitment and determination to cushion the hardship vulnerable schoolchildren faced at home due to the lockdown. It reportedly targeted a total of 3.1 million households as well as parents and guardians of children in primary 1 to 3 in public schools participating in the programme.
This raised some doubts in the minds of many Nigerians considering that schools were not open then due to COVID-19 pandemic. Some Nigerians wondered how many homes were visited and how many schoolchildren were genuinely reached. Also, there were questions as regards who the contractors were and the parameters used in selecting the initial beneficiary states. The total budget for the programme; procurement rules and the bidding processes were also contentious.
Last September, the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, said preliminary investigations revealed that payments to some federal colleges for the school feeding programme amounting to N2.67 billion during lockdown when the children were not in school, ended up in personal accounts.
Has the government erased the doubts surrounding this programme? Has it addressed the quality of food and the allegation of opaqueness in the implementation of the programme? These are questions begging for urgent answers.
The programme may be well intentioned, but the way it is carried out is problematic. For instance, in May 2019, the President’s wife, Mrs Aisha Buhari, criticised the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) of the government. According to her, the programme failed woefully to achieve its aim in Kano and most parts of northern Nigeria. Last April, the National Assembly queried the N12 billion purportedly spent monthly on the scheme, calling the entire exercise a scam.
The shoddy way the COVID-19 palliatives were distributed last year also left much to be desired. That was why even when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau, Department of State Services and many civil society organisations reportedly monitored the school feeding programme, Nigerians still expressed some doubts. It has become imperative to ensure that citizens know every necessary detail about the programme.
Moreover, the programme should have an exit plan. It shouldn’t be indefinite. The Federal Government initiated it in 2016 as part of government’s Social Investment Programme. But considering that most social intervention programmes have a time frame, this one should not be different. Also, those who prepare the food should undergo periodic medical tests. The food, no matter how small, must be of good quality.
We also think that the scheme should be reviewed. For instance, if it must be done, it must have a national spread rather than the staggered implementation in some states. Every primary school pupil in the country should be a beneficiary. There should also be proper monitoring and evaluation of the programme. All the inadequacies noticed in the implementation of the programme should be addressed.