Uncertainty as Government Takes Over Kenya’s School Lunch Program

Kenya’s school lunch program provides critical nutrition for hundreds of thousands of children. But a change in the program’s administration has educators worried about the future of the initiative.

Written by Dominic Kirui Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Children at Kibera School in Nairobi line up to get their lunchtime meal. In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

NAIROBI, Kenya – It is a cold midday in Nairobi and Peter Auma is sitting outside his house in the city’s Mathare slums. His wife, Consolata, is busy nursing their 4-year-old son, who is suffering from sickle cell disease and has just arrived from the hospital. He is the youngest of their nine children.

Auma, a 45-year-old fisherman, is also not well. His illness forced him to quit his job two years ago. His wife has a heart problem and had to cut back on her work. That means that the family has difficulty with money, between paying school fees and rent, buying food and other household items.

One thing Auma has never had to worry about is school lunches for his children. The kids who are in primary school have always had their midday meal provided by the World Food Program (WFP).

But for the Aumas and tens of thousands of other parents living within Nairobi slums and the arid areas of the country, there is a looming uncertainty. In May, WFP gave its last money for the school feeding program.

The Kenyan government has been slowly taking over the program since 2009, but with ongoing support from the WFP. Now the administration is taking total responsibility and already administrators and parents say that cracks are starting to show.

At the school to which Auma sends two of his children, parents have been asked to make a financial contribution to keep the school lunch program going – a contribution Auma said he cannot afford.

Samira Nassir, a nutritionist working in the Mathare slums, said any interruption in service will have a huge impact on the nutrition of children benefiting from the program. “If the parents are burdened to pay the fee for food, yet they do casual jobs for survival, this means that the pupils will eventually drop out of school and this will also affect the nutritional status of these children,” Nassir said. “More of them will become underweight and will get stunted.”

Government Control

In Kenya, 1.82 million children under 5 years old are suffering from chronic malnutrition. That’s out of a total under-5s population of 7 million. The situation is most dire in impoverished settings like urban slums, but also holds in rural areas where food supply is easily disrupted by droughts or floods.

The WFP, in collaboration with the government, has been running a school meal program for some of the worst-affected children since 1980. When the government started to take a more active role, in 2009, it introduced the Home Grown School Meals Program, which looked to support local farmers while also providing a sustainable source of nutrition for children in slums and rural areas.

Martin Karimi, the WFP’s communications officer in Nairobi, said his organization began to slowly pass on responsibility for school feeding to the government’s new program while still maintaining some involvement. By last year, the administration was responsible for feeding 1.6 million children, while WFP supported 500,000. But now the government is responsible for everything.

While advocates acknowledge that the administration has been successful in its gradual adoption of elements of the program, they worry what will happen when the administration has complete control. Already there are worries that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s cabinet did not allocate enough money to run this year’s program – a fact the cabinet secretary in the ministry of education, Amina Mohamed, appeared to acknowledge in May when she launched the National Schools Meals and Nutrition Strategy.

“The government requires [$34.2 million] to support all the children under the program,” she said. “However, since the ministry’s allocation for the next financial year is expected to stand at [$24.3 million], I will initiate consultations with the treasury with a view to seeking additional funds to bridge the shortfall.”

Officials said they have a plan in place to overcome any shortfall. Kennedy Buhere, the communications officer at the State Department of Early Learning and Basic Education, said there is some holdover from earlier WFP allocations that will allow the program to run through the end of the first term in 2019, at which point the current budgetary allocations will kick in.

And the WFP’s Karimi said the agency will continue to provide technical support to the government, including training for school staff and cooks, and assistance with implementation and monitoring. But “we will not have direct food or cash going to schools from WFP,” he said. And that has some administrators worried.

Gaps Ahead?

Jackson Monayo is the head teacher of Mathare North Primary School, which has long benefited from the program. In the last two months, the school has started seeing troubling signs about the initiative’s future.

“What we only have been told is that we should mobilize parents to start taking over the payment for the meals,” he said. “They had been paying 200 shillings [about $2] per student and this has been a challenge having them pay. Now they have been asked to pay an additional 630 shillings that the WFP has been giving for every child.”

Abdub Godana, the head teacher at Forole Primary School, hundreds of miles from Nairobi on Kenya’s border with Ethiopia, tells a similar story.

“We have the school feeding program here, even though it’s on and off,” he told News Deeply. “Sometimes we just have to depend on NGOs to give us food for the children.” And he is worried that, with the transition now happening, that is about to become even more common.

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