• Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Free food for pupils: An expensive food for thought (1)

Free food for pupils: An expensive food for thought (1)

Last June when Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State demonstrated his ostensible native awareness and knowledge of the grassroots peculiarity (as it was then claimed) by offering the electorates food items and regular cash gifts to take care of their fundamental subsistence, he excelled as a grassroots strategist and displaced Fayemi partly due to that approach. Just after that, I read an article by Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos in reaction to what he somehow described as a manipulative victory of the PDP in Ekiti and I noticed how he described and questioned the victory of Fayose and the PDP over what was then dubbed “stomach infrastructure”.

Fashola was very critical of the stomach infrastructure inkling and I really agree with him on many of the implications of such tactic. It was more like baiting the people or taking advantage of their lack of the most basic needs to lure many of them to the poll. It is not the best way to position a people-oriented programme or administration and it is really never going to be a sustainable example of people’s welfare or long-term public policy.

Apparently, that was not the first time we saw similar practices and promises by leaders and policymakers in either PDP or APC but, unfortunately, the public school pupils and their parents are part of those now being distracted and cajoled into believing that this is an example of a caring government or just one of those freebies the electorates get when they support a particular party.

There had been widespread publicity since 2012 about the State of Osun providing staples such as rice, beans and yam served with stew and vegetables for elementary pupils in public schools. They claimed it addressed malnutrition and raised academic performance of the students. It is unbelievable that anyone would claim that feeding pupils on free staples would increase academic performance. Clearly, those making this claim have not checked their assumptions very well. While the practice can address malnutrition, the effect of food on academic performance is not a straight-forward relationship.

Read also: Ogun engages 3,000 cooks to feed 194,000 pupils in FG free school meals scheme

Another example is the provision of free milk for Primary One pupils in Lagos State public primary schools, which, according to them, supports healthy growth and mental alertness. This is another exaggerated example of stomach infrastructure. The study conducted on the effect of milk on mental health has come under serious attack with reference to the reactions of authoritative health and medical regulators such as the NHS in the UK, which faults the cross-sectional analysis research that promoted the claim that daily intake of milk (dairy) improves mental health. Those making this particular claim need to conduct their own independent research and they may just find that their claim is superficial. 

These two instances in the State of Osun and Lagos State are not different from what has been described as “stomach infrastructure” in Ekiti. I therefore wonder if Governor Fashola does not see all the three approaches as birds of a feather. While all of these forms and examples of freebies prevalent in many of the states have become popular in wooing the electorates, they lack sound and sustainable premises and their acclaimed impacts are wrong or misleading. Their proponents are unable to lay claims to any independent scientific evidences to support their acclaimed results. It is to such an extent that they raise serious doubts as to the intention or ability of those who promote these programmes and their purported outcomes.

Unfortunately, this ideology of “stomach infrastructure” is now gaining grounds nationally. It seems to be the foundation of what Gen. Mohammadu Buhari and APC are now featuring in their campaigns as part of their plans for the Nigerian pupils and the educational development of the nation. The idea of free lunch for pupils in Nigeria is not as practicable and noble as the Nigerian politicians make it appear. Somewhere else like the UK where this is being practiced, the free food is just an icing on the cake of a truly free education. In Finland, the major objective of the free food is its inclusion as a pedagogical tool for teaching table manners, food culture and healthy eating habits, whereas in the USA, free school meal programme started as a legislation for helping mechanized farmers who had no market for their surplus output to sell excess food crops to the US government, which decided to buy large quantity of food stuff off the farmers and process such into free meals served to students as part of government’s contribution to increasing the nutrition of the pupils. It was not for improving the mental health or increasing academic performance of the students. In another instance, free school food was actually discontinued in Norway due to their inability to sustain the programme.

How about here in Nigeria? Why has free food to school students become so important and rampant? Have we truly and really been able to make education free (even at primary level alone and across all states) before we then start promising free lunch? It should be easier to offer a truly free form of education than to start serving free lunch because the former already has an established structure and mechanism of attainment compared to the latter which requires a totally new and completely different modality and implementation. For example, the free meal arrangements and how they are shared to corps members during NYSC orientation should serve as a cue to what a nationwide free lunch programme may look like in Nigeria. Many can testify that, from their NYSC orientation experiences, it was better eating at the Mammy market.

How many pupils will the Federal Government feed for free and how does that create 20,000 jobs (as they have claimed) in each state? How far have we gone with the agriculture reformation programme?