Is Kenya Starving the Poor to Play Politics?

With Sammy Ndirangu and some of ACORN Kenya Korogocho leader

Nairobi      Talking to ACORN Kenya organizers and leaders, one thing jumped to the top of the conversation quickly when education was raised, and it was not the poor quality of the books and classrooms this time, it was food, specifically school lunches.    Everyone from slumdweller to education expert agrees that a child’s ability to learn is improved by whether or not they are receiving adequate nutrition, and in slums like Korogocho where ACORN works, the meal at lunch and any leftovers sent home by the school are often the real meal of the day.  How could this situation have worsened?

It turns out that with the installation of a new government this year after the 2017 election, the incoming Interior Department minister announced a change of policy on school lunches.  After a 40-year partnership with the World Health Organization, which was paying the bulk of the cost of over $1 billion dollars to provide school lunches in Kenya’s lowest income communities and elsewhere, the minister declared the time for “dependence” on outside interests and donors had ended, and that Kenya would feed the million school children itself effective January 2018.   The WHO in the face of this opposition withdrew its funding.  The January date turned out to be too ambitious so the implementation policy for the new school lunch policy or what might be know as the “no school lunch policy” became May 2018.

David Musungu with some of the leaders

The legislature only appropriated the equivalent of $24 million to support the feeding program.  The potential beneficiaries were reduced from one-million children to half-a-million.  In the new “independence” program, parents were then assessed a fee for the lunches to offset the cost of local authorities providing them of roughly 800 KS per term or $8 USD, leaving the children of many poor parents to withdraw from school as well.

We asked the chief of Korogocho, who is appointed by the national government, about this policy change and its impact.  He argued that Korogocho and other slums needed an exemption.  The average income in the slum is only the equivalent of $70 per month so losing $2 for the lunches per month during the school term is not trivial.  He went into some detail about what he argued were the 60% of residents who depended on the city dump that abuts the slum by scavenging waste food.  He believed the government needed to act to continue the lunches.

 

At the same time, when we argued that our members were demanding that ACORN initiate a campaign to restore free school lunches and that in talking to our members, we were finding variable costs, some of which were significantly higher, his advocacy pivoted with concerns that our raising our voices in protest might put pressure on his political position as well.

As we left the meeting, we looked at how tall and strong the tree had grown on the chief’s compound that we had planted when launching ACORN eight years ago in 2010.  We knew the leaders felt there was not choice but to do everything possible to change this policy, and their will be done.

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Is Head Start Obama’s “No Child Left Behind?”

New Orleans   HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has announced that about 132 Head Start agencies charged with providing pre-school education for the poor will go through “redesignation.”  Redesignation really means that they will lose their contracts and go through a rebidding process because they have been found deficient in some respect.  Many of the deficiencies seem trivial, but the impacts are large since agencies in parts of Los Angeles, New York City, St. Louis, and Houston are among the large districts impacted in this rebidding “auction.”

The Administration is spinning this as a push to make sure the poor are getting the best in Head Start services and support, and I hope so.  Unfortunately, the federal free-for-all on $7 billion in funding also seems somewhat political because Head Start though largely protected by funding cuts under Obama is under fire from different directions on how much impact the preparation for poor children in preschool has on long term performance.  I worry that Obama’s Head Start initiative here could become to Obama what Bush’s No Child Left Behind has been:  a critique without a program or solution!

Local 100 represents Head Start teachers and staff in Houston, Little Rock, and Shreveport, so we see the daily sweat, blood, and tears in good times and bad that dedicated workers give to educating these very young children to prepare them for the future.  When studies question whether or not the advantages of Head Start last past the 1st grade, we wonder whether Head Start is the problem or what happens in the increasingly beleaguered public school systems, where we also represent workers in Texas.  There are more and more expectations with less support and resources.

I wouldn’t say that Head Start should be a sacred cow, but attacking the programs after years of defunding and funding freezes under Bush and as one of the few remaining programs that seeks to give the poor a break early in their lives, seems risky politics and bad policy in these polarized times where the right is looking for more scapegoats.

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