When children are too hungry to concentrate on their school work, the chances of them getting anything out of their education are slim.
Hundreds of thousands of children in SA receive little food at home and rely on a state-funded lunch at school for their main nourishment of the day. An appalling 21% of all children up to nine years old are stunted by malnutrition.
The Tiger Brands Foundation director Eugene Absolom is a first-hand witness to the hunger that is rife in poor communities. Through its countrywide nutrition programme, it serves breakfast to 63,500 pupils every day and closely monitors the effect, providing evidence that the scheme boosts children’s health and their capacity to concentrate. Good nutrition is essential for cognitive functioning.
The Foundation has conducted three surveys to assess the effect of its programme in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and Free State, working with the universities of Johannesburg and Free State.
They show conclusively that the nutritional status of the children has improved, pupil performance has improved, school attendance has improved and obesity has been reduced.
"There’s been a tangible improvement in the nutritional indicators of the learners, like body mass index," says Absolom.
"There’s also anecdotal evidence of learner concentration being improved, so the studies indicate that where we are feeding breakfasts, the learners are performing better.
"Learners who receive a breakfast had at least 10% higher educational results, so that’s very important."
The service covers 89 non-fee-paying schools in all nine provinces. In June the Foundation will serve its 50-millionth breakfast. Those are impressive figures — until you consider what they’re up against.
"The reality is that there are 8.8-million kids receiving a free school lunch, so although we are doing great work we are barely scratching the surface," Absolom says.
"We go to the poorest of the poor in pockets of deprivation where the lunch meal doesn’t suffice in meeting the nutritional needs of these learners. Breakfast is important because some of these children haven’t had supper, so there’s a 17-hour gap without a meal."
The Foundation is funded by food manufacturer Tiger Brands, which donates 5% of its dividends to the work. Last year it spent R32m and in the five years since being established, it has spent R117m.
Each breakfast costs R2.22 a child and the meals rotate between Jungle Oats, Morvite, Mabele and Ace instant porridge to provide variety.
Every child in the selected school gets a breakfast, as well as every member of staff. "That takes away the discrimination, because we’re not singling out the poor ones," says Absolom.
Breakfast is served with each child sitting at a table and using a different cup, saucer and spoon every day. Little touches like that help to bring some dignity to the children, says Absolom.
"They sit with an educator supervising so it resembles a normal family meal. It’s not a breakfast programme with learners standing in a queue waiting to receive their ration."
The scheme goes far beyond dropping off food by the sackful and letting the school get on with it. At about 30 schools, the Foundation built a kitchen or repaired dilapidated facilities so there was somewhere to prepare the breakfasts.
It also pays a stipend to more than 300 food handlers who cook and serve the breakfasts. The handlers are already employed by the Department of Basic Education to serve school lunches, so this has extended their working hours and their income.
During school holidays, the Foundation delivers food hampers that are designed to feed whole families for two weeks.
"Many learners come back from the long holidays with malnourishment because of food insecurity in their community, so we provide food hampers that will stretch for two or three weeks to cover the most basic nutritional needs for a family of four to six people," Absolom says.
Education is another major component, targeting the food handlers, school principals, teachers and parents.
The scheme has no control over what the children eat after school each day, but it is trying to use its influence by holding education sessions for parents and teachers to highlight the importance of a healthy, balanced diet.
Food handlers are taught about safety in the kitchen and how to prepare food carefully so the nutritional value is maintained.
The principals are not just trained to manage the feeding programme, but are coached in how to manage all situations.
"We don’t come as Tiger Brands doing good work and swinging our hips around," says Absolom. "We try to coexist with the community — it’s about doing it with them and understanding their needs, so how the community sees us is a very important success factor. They see us as a partner, not a donor."
Because the Foundation’s resources are finite and the problem seems infinite, it wants to encourage other companies to replicate its model to reach thousands more schools.
The Foundation is willing to run the scheme on behalf of another company that covers the costs, or to share its knowledge and methodology to help another company replicate the work.
"Our programme isn’t looking for short-term intervention. We are saying: how do we transform this country?" says Absolom.
"If we really want to change the economics of these communities, it’s not an overnight thing. It’s not going to start with providing maths and science in matric, we have to intervene at a very early stage."
Providing the children with good nutrition and information about healthy eating gives them an improved chance of coming through the school system successfully and having a better opportunity in life.
"That’s perhaps Utopian, but it’s what’s needed in the South African context," says Absolom.