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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Shaming for Lunch

Little Rock  When these horrific reports of school lunch shaming began getting public attention, my first reaction was to talk to our school worker organizers in Dallas and Houston to make sure our cafeteria workers were not involved in any such practices. HISD and DISD both seem to have policies that prevent children from being shamed when their parents are unable to pay for school lunches which was a relief. It was so, not just because that meant children – and their parents – were being treated with some kind of respect and dignity regardless of finances, but also because our union representing cafeteria workers in these two giant school districts would have been horrified if we found that our members had been put in such terrible positions and somehow the issue had slipped by us.

In Little Rock where we have been active on various levels in the school issues, for all of the other problems in the district with the state takeover and one thing or another, in this area their policies seem solid. If 70% of a school is on low-or-reduced price lunches, which many are, then 100% of the school gets free lunch. In other schools, if a parent is billed and unable to pay, there is a district form they can fill out that leads to a waiver.

Eating shame for school lunch is simply unacceptable. The documented stories of lunches being taken from children and thrown away in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, when a bill was in arrears, are just impossible to even imagine. The report in the New York Times of children in an Alabama school having “I Need Lunch Money” stamped on their arms are horrific. In the Alabama case, it was obviously a premeditated standardized policy. There must have been a discussion on the policy, a likely debate on the language, and then some school personnel assigned to go order and pickup the stamp after it was made, get the stamp pad, and begin putting it on the arms of children. Nowhere along the line was there a good soul saying enough, no way. New Mexico to its credit passed the first “no school lunch shaming” bill in their state legislature this spring.

It matters on two levels.

The first is human decency, though that probably makes me seem hopelessly old school in the time of Trump. No one, adult or child, should ever be placed in an uncomfortable public position based on their income or general finances. The battles long won, though still contested, to make sure that food stamp users and free school lunch participants were not stigmatized with special lines, different food, or any humiliationare now decades old, but now have to be fought again it seems to prevent a return of institutionalized inequity, rather than the general societal inequity that seems rampant everywhere today.

The other is nutritional. Lunch, a good quality lunch, makes a difference. Studies indicate that students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on statewide achievement tests with a 4% improvement in test scores above schools with less healthy meals.

Children in school should never be shamed, but the rest of us should surely be ashamed that this happens anywhere in America!

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Please enjoy Sheryl Crow’s Long Way Back. Thanks to KABF.

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