Six Gauteng schools have been rocked by robberies targeting computers and food meant for the school nutrition programme since mid-March.
By the beginning of April, four schools in Atteridgeville in Tshwane, had been the targets of what is believed to be a syndicate operating in the area, according to Gauteng Department of Education spokesperson Steve Mabona.
Attendance and performance affected
“It is especially concerning because some of these learners would depend on the school nutrition programme as their first and last meal of the day which means they can go on empty stomachs for a day or more,” Mabona said.
“Going for a day or more without a meal affects the attendance and performance of the affected learners,” added Mabona. “It will be difficult for them to comprehend anything that is taught, play with other children and, most importantly, their health conditions will deteriorate.”
Meanwhile, Dr Monokoane Hlobo, secretary general for the Congress of School Governing Bodies, has confirmed that theft from school feeding schemes is a nation-wide problem.
Fourteen-year old Lebuso Masakala is in his last year of primary school at Amohelang Primary School in Botshabelo township in the Free State. His dream is to study mechanical engineering, but he has many obstacles to overcome, the most immediate being lack of food.
“My father is the only one working and he has to provide for six of us: me, my mother, my two-months-old sister, my younger brother who has just turned nine as well as my grandmother, and also himself,” explained Masakala.
“I leave home every day without eating breakfast because I know I’m going to eat at school every day at 10 ‘o clock. The food helps me concentrate at school because most of the time I don’t have money to buy something to eat at school and I fully depend on the food that is provided.”
Impact on long-term success
Dr Hlobo said that some schools struggled to keep up with the daily provision of food to learners because of “unforeseen circumstances like water and power cuts and sometimes food being stolen”.
Research shows that hunger is directly related to academic performance and can significantly impact the potential long-term success of a child.
Although there is little data for South Africa, a 2005 study from the United States published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that among six to 12-year-olds, “food insufficiency was associated with poorer mathematics scores, grade repetition, absenteeism, tardiness, visits to a psychologist, anxiety, aggression, psychosocial dysfunction, and difficulty getting along with other children”.
Among older children, not enough food was also directly linked to higher rates of depression and suicidal behaviour.
The school nutrition programme provides at least one meal for about nine million learners every school day. In Gauteng alone, 1.4 million learners rely on the programme, which was one of 10 programmes former President Nelson Mandela launched in his first 100 days in office.
Wits researcher Dr Tracy Ledger says that childhood malnutrition is an “enormous problem” in South Africa with “enormous implications going down the line”.
The link to violence
Data from the 2017 South African Early Childhood Review found that 77% of children under the age of two are not eating a “minimum acceptable diet”.
Dr Ledger said the consequences of this childhood nutrition crisis to society are often extremely underestimated.
A recent study of over 700 people in the United States, published in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found a direct link between childhood hunger and violent behaviour.
“If you are hungry it is impossible to concentrate and to learn but the other thing we don’t talk enough about is the link to violence,” explained Dr Ledger, adding that this should be a priority in a country with such epidemic levels of violence as South Africa.
She said this comes down to an “evolutionary response”: when one is hungry “impulse control in the brain is overridden”.
“The brain tells us not to think about the consequences of our actions because there is an aggressive focus on getting food,” said Dr Ledger. “When children are constantly subjected to malnutrition the impulse control function in the brain can be permanently damaged and predispose these individuals to being violent throughout their lives.”
Long-term damage includes an increased risk of developing lifestyle diseases like hypertension and diabetes, and, ironically, of being obese later in life – all of which are costly not only to the health system but to society.
But Dr Ledger said that much of the long-term damage caused by malnutrition occurs in the first five years of life, so that while the school nutrition programme is important, more should be invested in providing nutritious food for younger children.
“We should also be focusing on delivering nutrition interventions as early as possible but the fact that thousands of children still die of starvation in this country every year shows that childhood malnutrition has much more impact on our societal problems than we care to admit,” she said.
“We spend so much money on violence and lifestyle diseases and one of the biggest solutions is solving childhood malnutrition which is not impossible to do with our resources. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that no one in government really cares.” – Health-e News.
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