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NPL divestment approved but no immediate changes for school meals

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2016 | 11:04 AM
Nutrition Products Limited.
Minister of Education Ruel Reid.
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A consultant has been in the field assessing duplications in the Government’s School-Feeding Programme, the SFP, according to education sources.

It is meant to inform an operational shake-up of the programme, based on documents seen by Gleaner Business, but Minister of Education Ruel Reid has rejected suggestions that a merger of the different meal programmes was under consideration.

Reid, who has been in office for just under nine months, also said he did not approve the hiring of a consultant. But he did confirm progress on the plans to divest state-owned Nutrition Products Limited (NPL).

“I am denying anything about merger because I have not commissioned any such study,” he said.

Students’ meals is one of the oldest and largest of the Government’s social safety-net programmes and is spearheaded by the School Feeding Unit of the Ministry of Education, which provides resources to: public primary and secondary schools with meals prepared on site by those schools; the Early-Childhood Commission (ECC), which feeds basic-school children; and the Government-owned and operated breakfast and snack producing company, Nutrition Products Limited.

NPL has been approved for divestment by the Cabinet, Reid told Gleaner Business last Tuesday.

Back in 2011, then Minister of Education Andrew Holness, now Prime Minister, floated the idea of divesting the NPL as a cost-cutting measure. At the time, NPL ran a deficit of $123 million, but it has now turned the corner and has been making surpluses, totalling more than $60 million in the last two years.

COST-SAVING MEASURE

“At some point, not in the next school year – probably in the following year – certainly, by the end of the new IMF programme, we hope to divest that,” Reid said of the privatisation plans for NPL. “It would be cheaper to give the schools the money than to produce, then distribute,” he said.

The ministry itself is also being overhauled, in keeping with the Government’s goal of separating its policy functions from operational matters, Reid added.

“For a long time, the IMF has said to the Government, we have too many entities, (and) the Government needs to rid itself of things that are not part of the core business,” he said.

The plan to reform the school-feeding programmes appear to predate Reid’s appointment as education minister.

A document posted on the ministry’s website titled the Integrated Social Protection and Labour Project, dated February 2016 – the Government changed administrations in March after general election on February 25 of this year – deals with the 'Modernisation of the School-Feeding Programme' as its fourth component.

OPERATIONALLY FRAGMENTED

In its rationale, the document notes that the meal programmes are operationally fragmented, leading to management challenges and “resulting in less-than-efficient delivery”.

“Resources available to the programme are fragmented in how it is disbursed and, therefore, is not effectively utilised,” it said.

A consultant, supervised by the Integrated Social Protection and Labour Project, and who, up to last week, has already visited several of the sites under the SFP, is to conduct an indepth analysis of all the processes and activities, and determine the gaps and overlaps in how the functions are carried out under existing arrangements. The document said the consultation would run for three months.

“The findings from the analysis should be used to make recommendations to strengthen the institutional arrangements of the SFP with a view to bringing all operational matters under one entity," the project document said.

The consultant will, at the end, "propose a model for governance and management for the SFP that reflects an efficient and harmonised arrangement of service provision".

Reid, however, was adamant that no decision has been taken regarding the SFP's structure.

"I have not made any decision about any merger. As we speak, all the school feeding programmes that now exist will continue to exist for the time being until I have articulated any other position," he said.

"If there is a consultant working, that must be duplicating what was already done because the issue of looking at school feeding is something that from the first deal we did in 2010 [with the IMF] was on the table," he said.

The 2010 deal with the IMF collapsed in less than a year, but a new agreement, an extended fund facility, was signed in 2013. This month, Jamaica transitioned to a new arrangement, referred to as a precautionary standby agreement.

tameka.gordon@gleanerjm.com