EDUCATION and Training Minister, Motlalentoa Letsosa says government will not hesitate to terminate the contracts of companies found to be compromising efforts to ensure that school children get balanced meals to aid their learning.
Mr Letsosa said hunger was one of the major contributing factors to poor performance by learners and that the feeding scheme, under the Compulsory Free Primary Education, was one of the efforts by government to address this problem.
Mr Letsosa said it was extremely worrying that two private companies contracted to supply food in schools in 18 constituencies failed to supply food just two weeks into their contract.
The two companies – Ruele Lesotho and TJ General Dealers – were contracted by government to timeously supply food to the schools providing Compulsory Free Primary Education beginning January 2017.
The two, however, failed to deliver food as expected just two weeks into the reopening of the new school calendar, prompting an outcry from school principals, parents and community leaders.
“It is clearly stipulated in their contracts that such contracts can be cancelled with immediate effect if breached,” Mr Letsosa said, adding, “I must stress that this situation is deeply worrying because hunger affects learners’ learning abilities, especially at the time when the ministry is working hard to bring positive changes to our education system”.
He said in addition to blaming the heavy rainfall experienced in most parts of the country, the companies also cited inefficiency by transport companies for their failure to timeously deliver food to designated areas.
The companies further claimed that the number of learners per school continuously increased, resulting in food shortages as they had not anticipated this.
The majority of learners enrolled under Compulsory Free Primary Education come from impoverished families and school represents their best hope of getting a meal.
Most of the learners are also part of the high statistics of malnourished children in Lesotho whose learning abilities have been negatively affected as a result.
According to the latest World Food Programme (WFP)’s World Hunger Series report titled Hunger and Learning, the majority of people suffering from hunger were caught in “ongoing silent emergencies of chronic undernutrition and ill-health”.
The report said the “undernutrition during pregnancy and infancy causes the most harm to the long-term learning capacity of individuals”.
The report said children who survived early nutritional deprivation and were lucky to report to school, perform more poorly at school and have lower cognitive capacity.
It further explained that this left the children with no choice but to have greater poverty in adulthood as well as creating poorer nutritional conditions for the next generation – thus perpetuating the cycle of hunger.
“The challenge, however, is to reorient the focus of current efforts from mainly curative, reactive strategies to more preventive, proactive ones – that is, to get at the root causes of the problem,” reads part of the report.
“The evidence clearly shows that, in addressing hunger’s impact on learning, it is best to intervene early, targeting mothers and infants as the first priority, but that intervening at other stages of life is also critical.”
The report warned governments that examining each stage of the lifecycle was necessary to distinguish between hunger’s impact on a person’s future capacity to learn (brain structure) and the impact on a person’s ability to make use of specific opportunities to learn (school, training).
“Hunger tends to have its greatest influence on capacity in early childhood and, to a lesser degree, during school age. The impact on opportunities to learn is more pronounced among school-aged children and adults.”
The report warned that the damage to one’s brain cells start as early as during pregnancy as undernutrition during pregnancy and infancy causes the “most harm to the long-term learning capacity of individuals.”
Other micronutrient deficiencies (including vitamins A and B12), the report said, in infancy and early childhood also negatively affect cognitive development.
It said although hunger’s impact in early childhood is greatest on a person’s future capacity to learn, it also limits the immediate learning opportunities of the young child.
The report said hunger (and associated illnesses) can prevent children from exploring and participating in learning opportunities in the world around them — from picking up a toy, investigating a basket of clothing, or playing with their friends.
Even when presented with such opportunities (for example, when an adult reads a book to them), hunger can distract a child’s attention, preventing them from making the most of those occasions to learn.
“Hunger also reduces children’s ability to take advantage of learning opportunities, by reducing school attendance and limiting attention spans. Moreover, once hungry children enroll, they are more likely to drop out.”
With most Basotho school aging children forced to head families or help with household chores while parents look for means of living, feeling pressure to help at home and not succeeding at school can make children become de-motivated and attend less often.
The report said even when children make it to school, short-term hunger can affect their attention spans, making it hard to learn, adding that short-term hunger often arises because a child has skipped breakfast or walked a long distance to school on a relatively empty stomach.
By contrast, children who do not suffer from hunger are better able to learn and score higher on tests of factual knowledge.