N11 Billion for Snacks in Lagos Schools: Timely Intervention or Misplaced Priority?

The Lagos State Government recently said it has earmarked about N11 billion for its ‘Snacks for Thought’ programme. The programme is designed by the state administration to complement the home-grown-school feeding programme of the Federal Government which covers only pupils in primary 1-3. The Snacks for Thought feeding programme is expected to take care of pupils at the crèche and primary 4 to 6 levels. The aim is to ensure that all primary pupils partake in the school feeding programme in the state.

Special Adviser to the Lagos State Governor on Civic Engagement, Aderemi Adebowale, disclosed this recently in a press briefing to commemorate the second year in office of the Sanwo-Olu administration. Her words: “The programme will cost the government about 11 billion naira, and we are going to partner with some bodies on this. We already have volunteers that will work with us; over 400 volunteers are ready to partake in it.

“Interventions, such as these, will not only increase the rate of enrollment, but will impact positively on gender parity and equality, while also serving as a preventive security measure in reducing crime and hooliganism that may later disrupt the socio-economic life of the state.

“Snacks-For-Thought deals with children’s physical and cognitive development by focusing on enhancing their learning experience, which primarily starts with the child’s mental disposition.”

The National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) of the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) was introduced in 2016 as a component part of the N500 Billion Social Investment Programme (SIP) to tackle poverty, as well as improve the health and education of children.

In the design of the programme, the Federal Government funds the feeding of pupils in Primary 1-3, while the state governments are expected to fund pupils in Primary 4-6. Apart from feeding pupils, it has also boosted local food production and purchase because the meals are prepared with locally grown foodstuffs, as the programme was designed to work with local farmers and boost domestic agriculture production; thus linking school feeding directly with agricultural development.

It has helped check malnutrition amongst deprived communities through the serving of one hot meal per child per day. It has also created employment opportunities with the engagement of thousands of cooks in the communities where the implementing schools are located in the states.

The programme, with the support of state governments, aims to support states to collectively feed over 24 million school children, which will make it the largest school feeding program of its kind in Africa. The goals include tackling poverty and improving the health and education of children and other vulnerable groups. According to a 2019 government document titled “Investing in Our People,” the program is feeding over nine million pupils in 52,604 schools across 30 states and empowering 101,913 cooks with bank accounts.

While the motives and objectives of the School Feeding programme are laudable and commendable, a recent review of the programme has exposed several gaps in the methodologies and techniques being used to implement the programme especially at the Federal level with regards to diversion of funds and other financial malfeasance.

The whole programme was engulfed in nationwide controversy when the Federal Government decided to go ahead with it during the April/May 2020 coronavirus-induced lockdown. It reportedly targeted a total of 3.1 million households as well as parents and guardians of children in Primary 1-3 in public schools participating in the programme.

This raised some doubts in the minds of most Nigerians since schools were not open then. Some Nigerians wondered how many homes were visited and how many schoolchildren were genuinely reached. There were also concerns on the quality and health standards of meals being served; with many revealing that the quality of food was consistently compromised by the coordinators to make more profits.

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More so, there were questions as regards who the contractors were and the parameters used in selecting the initial beneficiaries. The total budget for the programme; procurement rules, and the bidding processes were also contentious.

In September 2020, the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, said preliminary investigations revealed that payments to some federal colleges for the school feeding programme amounting to N2.67 billion during lockdown when the children were not in school ended up in personal accounts.

Till date, no efforts have been made to address questions raised on the quality of food and the allegation of opaqueness in the implementation of the programme?

The various unanswered controversies associated with the scheme has eroded the confidence of Nigerians in it. Most people have concluded that the scheme is being continued not because of the government’s eagerness to feed school children but because the programme could be a robust conduit pipe to divert public funds.

Lagos State’s decision to allocate N11 billion to the scheme will only add to heightening suspicion that the financial recklessness in the scheme being exhibited at the federal level is cascading down to the states.

While school feeding of carefully selected disadvantaged children is a global standard practice, the glaringness of the scheme’s inefficiency in Nigeria has proved once again that social programmes of this form are being used primarily to divert funds.

At the outset of the program which started in 14 flagship states of Abia, Anambra, Bauchi, Benue, Delta, Ebonyi, Enugu, Kaduna, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Taraba, and Zamfara states, the spectacle of the infrastructural conditions in many of the schools involved in the programme was an eyesore. Most of them lacked basic infrastructures such as running water, tables and chairs, concrete floors, toilet/sanitary facilities, standard windows and doors.

The broader school premises portrayed a highly unconducive environment for children education. The majority of the pupils were wobbly, haggard and emaciated; depicting a poor nutritional pattern that cannot be remedied with one paltry feeding per day.

Right from commencement, many educationists have indicated that although the programme will go a long way in creating economic growth to some extent due to the multiplier effects of the chain of activities; its advantage in enhancing educational advancement or nutritional value in the pupils will be quite minimal.

Multiple indices indicators published by UNICEF in 2018, stated that 229,264 pupils are out of school in Lagos State. Additionally, like in many parts of the country, a lot of public schools in Lagos are plagued with the challenges of low educational quality and dilapidated infrastructure.

This necessitated the state government in November 2019 to launch a Special Committee for Rehabilitation of Public Schools (SCRPS): a principal part of the government’s plan towards improving public education by infrastructure renewal in public schools.

The Committee has since carried out its mandate conscientiously, renovating selected schools across the state, while a maintenance plan was also created with the designation of Facilities Maintenance Officer to each school. Plans are also underway to commission new schools.

A thorough check of the committee’s work showed that many public primary schools in the state are left out and conspicuously missing in the list of ongoing projects.

Primary schools are the first stage of education and a launching path to higher education. It is crucial for states to ensure that basic education system are of the best quality in terms of resources and infrastructure.

It will be more desirable if the funds earmarked for this nebulous school feeding scheme are invested in the same primary schools to provide modern infrastructures; employ highly seasoned teachers; as well as use the remaining funds to galvanise the state economy to empower parents to cater for their children; instead of splashing N11 billion on snacks; which may become another avenue for diversion of funds, crass embezzlement, and financial impropriety.

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