The School Feeding Programme, launched as an initiative to provide hundreds of thousands of malnourished primary school students with a healthy diet, is failing, MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism can reveal.
The World Food Program’s Fill the Nutrient Gap Lesotho reported in 2019 that 33% of Basotho children under five years are stunted and will most likely not reach their full mental and physical development. Mokhotlong leads other districts with a malnourishment rate of 48%.
MNN visited Mokhotlong and several schools in Maseru district and found that the School Feeding Programme is failing the very people it was designed to help – impoverished children in primary schools.
MNN investigations found that while there are multiple reasons for the failing School Feeding programme, none of those involved is willing to take responsibility for the travesty.
Interviews conducted at Senqu Anglican Church of Lesotho and Mphokojoane primary schools reveal that TJ General Dealer, contracted with Ruele Lesotho by government to run the programme across the country, frequently failed to deliver enough food packages to the schools forcing cooks to stray from the prescribed menu.
In some instances, the schools ran out of food.
John Kinney, TJ General Dealer chief executive, claimed they supplied excess food to the schools but shortages resulted from mismanagement and theft by either cooks, drivers or individuals tasked with deliveries.
However, ‘Matebello Thuhlo, a teacher from Senqu ACL said that there is no time they received excess food from the company, adding: “the only time was when they were topping up because they had not delivered required quantities previously”.
“People think we are blind but we know, we have the records that we compare. We are dealing with humans and it becomes tricky as we can’t have eyes everywhere,” Kinney insisted.
In a separate interview, Tšepo Ntobane, the company’s project coordinator said they did not report the theft to the police, instead, if the schools reported shortages or mismatches between the signed waybills and quantity of food delivered, they reported this to their suppliers and let them deal with it.
Kinney further blamed their employer, the Ministry of Education, saying the department often delayed their payments and this impacted their ability to deliver timely and adequate food packages to the schools.
“When payments are delayed, we are unable to pay cooks and food suppliers. For instance, we have not been paid for two months and have notified the ministry that if payments are delayed further, our delivery for the next quarter will be delayed,” Kinney told MNN.
But Chief Education Officer Thuto Ntsekhe-Mokhehle said the companies delayed submitting their claims, even after submission, she said there’s always back and forth before payment is made because of their mistakes.
Ntsekhe-Mokhehle admitted that the Ministry of Education is aware of the existing problems within the school feeding program and is “devastated”. But she says: “our hands are tied” by budget cuts over the years.
“We used to get around M220-million in 2010 towards school feeding, we are in 2021 now and given just M168-million to feed about 385 000 students amid the rising prices… Ask the people of Finance, because we are equally shocked,” Ntsekhe-Mokhehle said.
Speaking to MNN, the Ministry of Finance Deputy Budget Control Officer, Masentle Molapo Mpobole, said due to slow national revenue growth, her ministry is forced to make budget cuts across ministries.
“We do not cut the school feeding budget, we cut the overall budget, annually. The revenue is growing at a very slow rate against skyrocketing expenditure and rampant corruption,” Mpobole said.
In line with the School Feeding Low Budget Menu implemented in 2019, primary school students in the highlands [Mokhotlong] are supposed to be served pap, peas, beans, samp, soy mince soup, sorghum, and vegetables.
Before 2019, the menu in the highlands consisted of pap, milk, bread, peas, cabbage, fish, beans, and samp spread over five days of the week.
Documents acquired from Jubilee Ntloana, the Schools’ Self-Reliance and Feeding Unit officer at the Ministry of Education, showed that the shift to low-cost menu has not only cut milk, bread, and fish from the menu, it has also reduced ration sizes from 120 to 80 grams of pap per student in the highlands and foothills.
Even on the low-cost menu, Senqu teacher Khampa Kapara, said it is hard for the cooks to comply with the menu because they do not receive all monthly food packages at once and cooks have to adjust the menu and stretch rations for food.
In May this year, Minister of Education Ntlhoi Motsamai said her ministry has been paying M3.50 meal per child since 2005, notwithstanding the ever-increasing costs, and has only increased the amount by four cents in 2017.
Abuse of waybill
For the purpose of this story, a waybill is a document that lists quantities of food packages delivered to the schools and is in turn used by companies to claim payment from the Ministry of Education.
“For the first quarter, the food was brought in portions. We were expecting food quantities as per the waybill but we did not end up receiving them,” Kapara said.
Kapara told MNN that Senqu Primary is usually made to sign the waybills before the food packages are delivered and he fears that this could enable the company to claim more than it actually delivered.
But Kinney said his company was not at fault if the schools claimed to have received all the goods while it was not true.
Should Kapara’s fears become a reality, there is nothing the ministry can do.
“If the school confirms [through the waybill] that it received a certain amount of food, there is nothing we can do unless we make follow-ups and that’s impossible with the staff that we have,” Ntloana told MNN.
But Kinney does not see signing the waybill before food delivery as a problem, he blames principals and school feeding managers, saying they repeatedly failed to notify them on time when goods were not delivered in line with the waybill.
On contrary, Ntloana argued that the ministry is supposed to scrutinize and approve the supplier’s food allocation plans and waybills before deliveries are made “but now you will find that they have already delivered the food before we see the allocation plan and approve it”.
Despite these discrepancies, the schools feel they have no option but to sign the waybill irrespective of whether it matches delivered food packages.
“We cannot refuse to sign a waybill because that would be rejecting the entire delivery and that would put students at the risk of hunger,” Kapara told MNN.
Hunger, hunger, hunger
It is 0940 am on a Thursday at Senqu Anglican Church of Lesotho (ACL)Primary School.
Students are gathered in the kitchen area as ‘Maserame Lepheana, a 56-year-old cook at the school, emerges from a rock-built and unventilated, smoke-filled hut.
She instructs the children to take out their containers and queue for breakfast.
Their first meal of the day is soft maize porridge. The soft porridge is appreciated by children who left their homes having eaten nothing in the morning or the previous night, MNN was told.
According to the Ministry of Education, students should be having a more nutritious sorghum porridge for breakfast. Ntloana said this is not the case because Lesotho does not have standard sorghum milling facilities.
“We are not given sorghum at all. At this point, it is just about putting something in the children’s stomach. They will not develop as well as they would on sorghum drink,” Lepheane said.
About 20km from Senqu Primary, east of the Senqu valley into the mountains, lies Mphokojoane Primary School.
Mphokojoane is not spared from the malnutrition crisis in the district.
Teacher ‘Marenang Chabana said among her students at Mphokojoane, malnourishment is seen not only in children’s sluggishness and inability to concentrate in class but also in their physiques, which feature tiny bodies with swollen bellies.
“Those who are malnourished you will notice; when others are playing, they will have no interest. Even if it’s just skipping rope, you’ll see them struggle,” Chabana said, adding that most of their students survived on school feeding meals as their only food.
“When the school runs out of food, we ask students to bring side dishes from home and if there is still oil, we do “maleboti” (maize meal fried in oil and salt) for those who brought nothing, there is no choice,” she added.
Senqu Primary has 132 young learners who depend on the school feeding program.
According to the school’s Deputy Chairman, Telang Mabena, the school sometimes receives only 10-kilograms of maize meal, which is supposed to last them at least a week, or up to whenever their next batch of food arrives.
At the minimum requirement of 80-grams of maize meal per child, 10-kilograms of maize meal is not sufficient even for a day.
MNN discovered that in both schools, students are not fed vegetables and due to frequent food shortages, they repeat the same meal for days, which is usually soy mince with pap, a meal that is unpopular among students.
“They really do not like it. They say it’s distasteful. You will see them leaving it behind or throwing it away after lunch.” Lepheane said.
In 2014/15, the school feeding programme consumed 10% of the education ministry’s total budget, but its allocations kept declining from one year to another until it was allocated just 5.2% this financial year, according to UNICEF Lesotho Education Budget-Brief 2020-2021.
“School feeding [and other budget lines] is squeezed to accommodate increases in either the number of teachers or the salaries paid to teachers or both,” UNICEF highlighted. This was upheld by Ntšekhe-Mokhehle who said of the MM2.6-billion allocated to education this year, M2.1-billion was allocated for salaries.
“Normally, school feeding would be left with about M200-million but due to cuts made by the Ministry of Finance over the years, it is now about M168-million feeding over 385 000 students nationwide,” she told MNN.
The Deputy Budget Control Officer Mpobole says she understands the difficulties facing the Ministry of Education, and that the nature of their work necessitates a higher wage bill. She stresses that it is not a matter of choice, but rather of the ministry’s nature.