School struggles to keep hunger at bay

Lynn Williams

WHEN the pupils hear the clink of the pots and smell the aroma of freshly cooked soup and porridge, there is an air of excited anticipation.

Some of them woke up after having gone to bed on an empty stomach.

At home the cupboards are bare and by the time they get to school they are so hungry they can barely concentrate.

At school they secretly hope that it is their turn to get fed, because they rely heavily on the school to get their only decent meal – every second day.

This is the reality of the more than 700 pupils at Alfonso Arries Primary School in Nelson Mandela Bay – an example of the thousands around the province who rely on the feeding schemes, either from charities or the government, for their daily bread.

The scheme sees to it that pupils are fed every alternate day. When The Herald visited the school yesterday, the aroma of soup and porridge filled the air and volunteers were getting ready to feed a Grade 4 class.

Inside the classroom, pupils were eagerly waiting and some anxiously peered out the windows when they spotted one of the volunteers passing by.

When the food reached the classroom, pupils could hardly contain their excitement. Some jumped up and down with smiles on their faces while others hurriedly cleared the books from their desks.

“Here is the food. I cannot wait! This food is so nice,” one pupil said.

When The Herald commented that the food looked nice, nine-year-old Yamkela Mdudu offered to share the little she had. Some licked their empty plates before it was time for the volunteers to leave.

Malnutrition has been cited as one of the major problems undermining children’s health in South Africa.

According to the 2012 District Health Barometer report – which compares health outcomes in the country’s 52 health districts – there has been a severe increase in malnutrition in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

Umkhanyakude in the far north of Kwazulu-Natal was rated the worst.

Surveys have indicated that 25% of pre-school and 20% of primary school children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Alfonso’s acting principal Bruce Damons said that many pupils were malnourished and urgently needed food.

“In this area the poverty and unemployment rates among parents are high. They simply cannot afford to feed their children.”

Damons said when the school opened in January, he was approached by a group of mothers who wanted to know what he intended to do to fight hunger at the school.

Because his school does not receive money from the Education Department for a school feeding programme, he did not have an answer.

Using their own initiative, parents started a voluntary feeding scheme. The group of five mothers – all of them unemployed – contributed R20 a month towards the scheme.

Head of the voluntary feeding scheme, Nomathemba Mfana, said with the money they made “soup and pap”. Sometimes they managed to get scraps of vegetables and rice.

Meals at the school are now sponsored by the People Opposing Poverty in Society Foundation.

Once volunteers started feeding pupils, it created a new problem because they still cannot feed all of the pupils every day. They were forced to create a rotational system whereby every child got a turn to eat every other day. The Grade R to Grade 2 pupils are fed on one day, with the rest of the grades being fed the following day.

Pupils living with HIV/Aids are given preference. They get to eat every day to enable them to take their antiretroviral medication.

“The rotational system is not ideal but at least every pupil gets a turn to eat. The need here is so great that if pupils miss a meal at school they don’t eat for the whole day,” Mfana said.

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