OPINION | The politics of food: Fighting for pupils’ right to eat

A Supreme Court ruling two years ago to restore school meals for eligible children was both an opportunity to show the connection between constitutionally guaranteed rights to a basic education and food, and a victory in securing the food rights of millions of students at large country, he writes Stacey Jacobs, Hopolang Selebalo and Julia Chaskalson.

Every year on October 16, governments around the world celebrate World Food Day to raise awareness of those who are hungry and the need to ensure access and food security for all. This is in line with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2) to end hunger by 2030.

The day is also a fitting opportunity to take stock and reflect on the hard-fought victory of civil society organizations in guaranteeing over nine million learners had access to daily meals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a 2019 Statistics South Africa report, more than 1.7 million households in the country suffered from hunger and inadequate access to food. The pandemic and lockdowns from March 2020 exacerbated the hunger crisis as millions of households were pushed into greater economic hardship and increasing food insecurity.


According to data from the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), as of April 2020, 47% of adults said their family could not afford groceries. Twenty-one percent of adults reported someone in their household went hungry between May and June 2020.

As South Africa went into lockdown and schools closed to stem the spread of the virus, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) decided to stop providing daily meals through the National School Nutrition Program (NSNP), benefiting over nine million learners let down life saving program. That’s because for some students, the only real meal is the one they get at school.

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The DBE wrongly expected learners to continue learning at home by providing reading packs, but neglected to couple learning materials with proper nutrition. The DBE failed to meet its nutritional commitment to learners, leaving parents and carers in a context where many have lost their jobs and faced increasing economic precarity, struggling to feed their children.

I’m so happy with the meals [NSNP] and appreciate them. Some of us can’t afford pocket money, and it makes us feel equal in school.

Betty Mothapo, a Class 10 EE member from Limpopo.

The DBE’s decision to suspend the program at this crucial time sparked outcry from education rights activists – including Equal Education (EE), Equal Education Law Center (EELC) and Section27 – which led to a legal battle before Gauteng High in July 2020 Court led. The court case emphasized the importance of school meals to children’s school experience and learning, in addition to the vital benefits they provide to their health and well-being.

Evidence presented to the court also showed how important the NSNP is to families and school communities as a form of social protection, with carers testifying about the added hardship breadwinners experience when they provide meals to learners who they usually received at school.

READ | Victory in school meals: a moment to celebrate

Fortunately, the High Court ruled against the DBE, ordering them to reintroduce school meals for all eligible learners, whether they were physically at school or studying from home. In addition, the state education offices and the DBE were asked to submit monthly reports on the progress made with catering.

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The ruling was both an opportunity to demonstrate the connection between constitutionally guaranteed rights to basic education and food, and a victory in securing the food rights of millions of learners across the country.

If I get enough to eat, I have the strength to be in school…I can focus and I can be myself. The porridge and beans are my favorites but I wish they gave more food…

Tumelo Mlangeni, a Grade 10 EE member from KwaZulu-Natal.

EE, EELC, and Section27 surveyed EE student members, principals, and counselors several times throughout 2020 and 2021 to verify that students were actually receiving meals. In a September 2020 survey of 125 learners, 99 students reported only attending school on a few days (rotating schedule system), with 71 of these students reportedly not receiving school meals on days when they had to study at home.

Also, in an October 2020 survey, 135 out of 144 students who alternated school indicated that they did not receive the NSNP when studying from home. While meals were reportedly provided in schools, the lack of student transport prevented many from accessing meals on stay-at-home days. To the detriment of learners, meal distribution and other alternative arrangements such as meal packs or ‘skaftiens’ proved problematic.

Improving children’s meals

Our survey of over 300 learners in March 2021 and 44 parents in June 2021 somewhat confirmed the DBE’s report that students were still not receiving the NSNP meals as they should and it was left to the carers to make up the shortfall cover up. Parents described having to borrow money from loan sharks to buy groceries and their children seeking part-time jobs rather than doing schoolwork to contribute to the household income. A separate survey of officials at 53 schools in June 2021 found that while 52 of the schools were implementing the NSNP, learners in 26 of the schools were not receiving meals during the rotation.

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In July 2021, the court was called again to persuade education departments to create appropriate plans and strategies for feeding all qualifying students due to the ongoing difficulties in implementing the NSNP. Education ministries agreed to prepare rollout plans to respond to shocks in the basic education sector as part of the out-of-court settlement of the case. Provincial progress reports submitted in August 2021 saw significant improvement with approximately 95% of eligible learners receiving their meals.

Rigorous monitoring by civil society ultimately strengthened service delivery and ensured meals got to the learners who needed them when it mattered. What is clear is that two years after the important Supreme Court ruling, the NSNP is still vital for the learners themselves and provides a buffer for their often starving households.

World Food Day should serve as a strong reminder to governments of their responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind in the face of ongoing local and global challenges.

– Stacey Jacobs is an education researcher; hopolang Selebalo is Research Director at Equal Education; and Julia Chaskalson is a Research and Advocacy Officer at Section27.

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