By Valencia Talane

A price of R22 for a loaf of bread would come as a surprise to the average South African consumer, even with the consistent rise in food prices over the past few years. It came as an even bigger surprise to a whistle-blower who alleged in a report to Corruption Watch that a supplier for his school’s feeding scheme charges this very amount for each loaf of bread delivered with the food supplies.

The report is one of over 50 complaints lodged with Corruption Watch and highlighting irregularities in school feeding schemes. The complaints are an interesting variety, ranging from inflated invoices by suppliers, to exaggerated learners’ rolls and stealing of the food itself.

In this article we point out some of the ways in which unscrupulous people take advantage of the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), a Department of Basic Education (DBE) initiative which is designed to ensure that children living in poor areas are fed healthy meals daily. In part two of our series we explain how the system should work, and in part three we advise on ways in which you, the parents and public, can address your concerns.

School nutrition programme – the basics

Over eight-million primary and secondary schoolchildren in some of the country’s poorest areas are beneficiaries of the NSNP. The nutrition programme is part of the government’s broader poverty alleviation drive and zooms in on schools in needy communities.

Through the NSNP, the department hopes to achieve three objectives:

  • to contribute to enhanced learning capacity through school feeding programmes;
  • to promote and support food production and improve food security in school communities;
  • and to strengthen nutrition education in schools and communities.

However, like other institutions and programmes in South Africa, the NSNP seems to be prone to corruption and manipulation, judging by over 500 reports Corruption Watch has received as part of its campaign to fight corruption in schools. The majority of the NSNP complaints are from Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, which is not surprising as according to DBE records, these are the two provinces with the most learners on the programme.

Trying to manage the budget

The NSNP’s overall national budget is informed by data collected from district and provincial education department offices. The DBE then provides this information to the treasury, which distributes the funds in the form of a conditional grant. Once the funds are with the DBE, they are then distributed to the provinces, each getting the amount proportional to its needs. That’s the simple part; it gets tricky when monitoring this trickling of funds from national level to schools, and ensuring that the funds get used for their intended purposes.

Although the DBE encourages schools to use funds allocated to them to grow and maintain their own vegetable gardens and own the process themselves, this is not always feasible. In some districts, schools have to secure contracts with private companies who then supply them with the food that will be cooked by unemployed members of the community. The cooks and food handlers have to be appointed by the school governing body and are paid from the budget allocated by the school to the feeding scheme. The menu for the programme has to be composed of proteins, carbohydrates and fresh fruit and vegetables, with different food types from these groups being provided alternately.

Corruption in the NSNP

Corruption and irregularities appear in various ways in the nutrition programme. One of the cases reported alleged that the principal – and not the members of the SGB as required by law – of a primary school in the Free State signs cheques from the school’s account to pay the workers of the feeding scheme. But the workers receive their stipends in cash.

The reporter suspects that the amounts put on the cheque and the cash payments made are not the same.

“The principal signs out a check on behalf of 5 women who cook in his name. He then gives each of us money on the hand. We suspect that there is corruption as the principal might be releasing more money and paying us less, please investigate,” the complainant pleaded.

It is possible that the principal inflates the amounts of the stipends on the cheques – which are recorded for purposes of auditing – but actually pays the workers less in cash. If this is indeed the case, it would mean that the principal’s motive could be to keep the difference in amount for himself.

Another report implicating a principal came from a supplier who claims that his contracted school’s learner roll was manipulated to reflect a smaller number than is actually the case.

For this supplier, the inconvenience lies in providing food for more learners than budgeted for, which means he is paid less than what he works for.

“The school allegedly fixes the roll of the learners to 600 since 2010. As far as we know the learners are 645. This affect our business, as we feed more learners than the budget for. Please help us as we are small businesses struggling to make a living.”

The reason for the school claiming fewer learners than it has is not known, but in some cases in Corruption Watch’s database the speculation is that for school administrators who wish to merge their schools or keep their financial administration rights, fewer learners on the roll work out for the better.

Not on the menu

The DBE emphasises the importance of sticking to the prescribed menu to ensure that learners get a balanced diet. It recommends foods such as fish, eggs, soya, beans and lentils as protein sources for learners. The guarantee that these essential foods reach the learners is not always there.

A case in point is a school in the Western Cape where a reporter alleges that less food was ordered than necessary and on one occasion the cooking staff were instructed by the principal to add water to the fish curry they were preparing for learners to make it seem more abundant.

In another case from the same province, the workers are alleged by a reporter to be stealing the food supplies meant for the learners, on a daily basis. The principal of the school is assumed to be aware of the women’s behaviour, but according to the reporter, has chosen to ignore it.

According to public education material supplied by the DBE, if there are any leftovers for the day, these are to be given to those learners who need them the most. It is up to the school’s management to determine who they are and how they would ensure that all who deserve to get food do so.

Don’t miss part two of our series, in which we explain how the NSNP should, in theory, work.