Partner with School Feeding Programme

Once again, we are hearing about a glut of vegetables on the local market. While our farmers and vendors are bemoaning the fact that they have to be dumping vegetables, some of our school-children are still receiving only a bulla and bag juice for lunch. Our School Feeding Programme could benefit from this input of vegetables but, unfortunately, we have failed to put systems in place to link local agriculture with school feeding. Our Ministry of Agriculture has been encouraging increased food production and we have, indeed, been seeing this increased production. What, however, is the use of this if there is no provision for us to eat and benefit from this increased availability of goods? We continue to waste food while our children remain undernourished. Time and again, studies show that children's academic performance will improve with good nutrition. While still grappling with under nutrition among students, we are also seeing the emergence of obesity and its negative health consequences in society. The international prevalence of obesity in preschool children (aged four to six) is three per cent, and this includes Caribbean countries, except for Jamaica, which already has double this prevalence. Our children are, therefore, overfed with calories but undernourished because of a lack of healthy food. Our Government must now seriously consider how to bridge the gap between farming production and school meals. Schoolchildren in Africa are now benefiting from a farm-to-school programme where increased production of local farming is channelled into the schools' feeding programmes. In this way, the farmers are assured of an income throughout the year and the children are assured balanced nutrition. Why are we not able to do the same? While there are cultural differences in how we would structure our programme, the lessons learnt from the Africans cannot be discounted. School as market niche The school population offers a large and captive consumer market for the development of local/community agriculture. Instead of dumping healthful food products because of gluts, these should enter the School Feeding Programme. A stable and reliable system is needed to facilitate the movement of food from farm to schools. Farmers need to know what to produce, when to produce it and how much is needed by the local schools. Structures and systems for coordination, monitoring and control must be in place so that produce from the farms can be delivered to 'food banks' for disbursement to schools in the required quantities. It is not good enough to give only money for food or randomly selected commodities, but we must empower communities, through training, to help provide for themselves. School-feeding programmes have served the purpose of fuelling agricultural growth and development in the United States and other countries, whereby a large proportion of national agriculture produce is used in school meals. Pushing for growth School feeding has been described as a built-in market for farm commodities. While we endeavour to enhance agricultural production, we must, at the same time, seek to secure the demand for our products. Schools represent an opportunity to expand the market for products and services of the agricultural and agri-industrial sector. Many companies are supported by school feeding, as produce must be processed and marketed to meet the demands of school feeding. Some schools have even ventured into food-processing cottage industries themselves, using excess farm products from their communities, thus enhancing rural development. Our agri-culture development strategy should, therefore, give appropriate consideration to developing school farming as enterprises and making the necessary links with school feeding and child nutrition. By recognising hungry school-children as a potential market for the products of small country farmers, school feeding will provide a synergistic approach to tackle three interrelated challenges simultaneously - improved nutrition, educational attainment and rural agricultural development. Coordination for school-feeding and nutrition programmes in Jamaica, and recognising the links with agriculture, is needed to achieve the common goal of healthier, better-educated students, leading to the productive adults of the future. I am, etc., PATRICIA THOMPSON (MSc) Executive Director, JamaicaIsland Nutrition Network