The rhetoric and the reality

During last week, two government officials were reported speaking on fighting hunger and malnutrition in Guyana. Since they both spoke at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Regional Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean workshop, references were made to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations and signed on to by its member states through which it is hoped the world would be transformed by 2030.

Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education (MoE) Vibert Welch both highlighted the MoE’s School Feeding Programme. Minister Holder spoke of the recently revised National Food and Nutrition Security Strategy and Action Plan, developed with the help of the FAO, which tackles poverty and food and nutrition insecurity.

In a press release circulated to the media, Mr Welch was quoted as saying, “Our ultimate goal is to eradicate hunger, overweight and obesity… At the Ministry of Education, we recognise that children need the energy to concentrate and enjoy school, as a consequence, therefore, our school feeding programme has emerged as a major initiative for our students’ well-being.” Much of this is rhetoric as neither the MoE nor the government, over successive administrations, has shown a lot of vision with regard to school-feeding programmes, except perhaps in the hinterland regions. Under the Guyana – Education For All (EFA) Fast Track Intitiative (FTI) Programme, which was carried out in collaboration with the World Bank from 2006 to 2012, a community school-feeding model was developed to address challenges confronted by the schools and communities in the hinterland regions. The objective was to provide each primary school child in the hinterland with a balanced, nutritious, daily meal to ensure they attended school, with the broader goal of having the school and community work together for the improvement of the children’s education. Back in 2012, World Bank consultant Christian Borja-Vega had noted that the programme was aligned with the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) that dealt with the alleviation of hunger and the assurance that boys and girls would complete primary school. He had pointed out that there was a lack of diet diversity in Guyana, especially with vegetables, fruits and dairy products and that hinterland communities were seen to have higher rates of stunting, mortality and poverty than average, and lower health indicators when compared with their coastal counterparts.

According to last week’s press release, Minister Holder referred to the “sustainable school-feeding model in regions One, Five, Seven, Eight and Nine”. Perhaps it is laudable that the sustainable school feeding continued after the programme ended, but one wonders why it is still being called a ‘model’ more than 12 years after it was initiated and why it has not been implemented in the other regions.

The provision of nutrition along with education is nothing new. According to reports, as far back as the 1970s free school snacks—milk and biscuits—were given to primary school children in Guyana. Over the years, most likely based on the needs of the students, canned fish and vitamin tablets were added. A Ministry of Education Annual Report for 1998, submitted by then permanent secretary Hydar Ally in 2001, revealed that even more had been added by that time. Mr Ally wrote, “Disadvantaged and needy students were assisted with prescription glasses and uniforms. Enhancement grants were distributed to specific schools to assist with the purchase of field material and supplements to take care of the dietary needs of some children. The hot meals programme continued playing a vital role in the lives of children with specific social needs at both secondary and primary levels.”

Around 2010, the PPP/C administration swapped the milk for juice, which saw all nursery school children along with pupils of Grades One and Two in coastal schools receiving a snack of juice and biscuits; canned fish and vitamins had long been off the agenda. Their counterparts in Region Nine had been receiving peanut butter, cassava bread and fruit juice, all sourced within that region, since 2005.

When the MoE announced the juice and biscuit snack in 2010, Demerara Distillers Ltd was contracted to provide the juices in Tetra Pak boxes and Banks DIH Ltd supplied the biscuits. However, in 2016, DDL lost the contract to Caribbean International Distributors Inc, a subsidiary of the Suriname-based company Rudisa. DDL subsequently successfully protested that award. But all that is an aside.

The real issue is the fact that for more than 40 years, nursery and primary-age children in coastal Guyana have been receiving basically the same snack in school: biscuits, first with milk, then with juice. This in a country where myriad fruits and vegetables are grown, several of which can be easily turned into handy and nutritious snacks, and are available year round. Yet, there are ministers, both in this administration and the previous one, who have touted the rhetoric of preventing malnutrition and protecting children from the onset of chronic non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

In addition, there was last October’s ‘fact-finding’ mission to Brazil by First Lady Sandra Granger, Minister of Education Nicolette Henry and others to observe the workings of that country’s sustainable school-feeding programme. As a result of which it is very possible that the wheel is about to change its shape. Part of a biblical verse proclaims, “where there is no vision the people perish…” Whether or not you believe in the bible, there is more than a ring of truth in that.

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