The government is confused.
After its indecisiveness on whether vocational education should be with the labour or education ministry, the government has announced to hand over the school feeding programme’s revised stipend from the education to the agriculture ministry.
The decision to transfer the increased stipend to the agriculture ministry was however, made without the knowledge of agriculture officials. This means the agriculture ministry will procure and supply food to the schools. Today, FCB supplies non-perishable goods while schools directly procure the perishable goods.
The government’s idea to meet the school feeding requirements with local produce is good. Our children deserve nutritious meals and the government has agreed in principle to revise the meals’ stipend. With this, the government is also planning to have an assured market in the schools for local produce. A task force has been constituted to study the transition and implementation of the programme.
But there is reluctance and apprehension. The education ministry has a dedicated division responsible for school feeding. The agriculture ministry has never been involved in supplying school meals. It may be naïve for the government to assume that the agriculture ministry’s involvement in food production, at least on paper, makes it a befitting agency to take up the supply of school-feeding programme.
To distribute food supplies, the government said it would involve Bhutan Post. Delivering letters and parcels is not the same as distributing food supplies. The existing system needs strengthening but a major overhaul for the sake of change could hinder supply and impact the quality of meals in schools. The agriculture ministry has already indicated that it may not be able to supply all nine commodities provided today. It plans to focus on five commodities and pilot in one school a gewog.
Such experiments raise questions on the purpose of the revised stipend and the intent of providing nutritious meals. The government cannot meddle with the health of our students and risk them going hungry with its trials. In its effort to provide nutritious meals, these manoeuvres may leave the system more deficient.
Studies have found that our students are not getting the required nutrients and micronutrients. Nutritional deficiency has led to deaths. A 2017 performance audit report on the school-feeding programme pointed out several flaws in the quality of meals, which compromised the recommended nutritional requirement. Schools lacked storage facilities and menus were monotonous, which discouraged children from eating. Efforts were made to improve the nutritional content of school meals but a lot more can be done.
This is where the government should step in. It has to put in place measures to monitor the programme and ensure that students are getting nutritious meals. While it was done in phases, the education ministry completely took over the feeding programme this year after world food programme phased out. Just as the education ministry starts managing the whole programme, the government decides to transfer the responsibility of supplying food to the agriculture ministry.
The two ministries should rather work together on providing nutritious meals. The government should spare the children of its political gimmicks.