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EDITORIAL: Eating healthy in schools

Published:Saturday | February 26, 2011 | 12:00 AM

The idea of providing school lunches for needy students can be traced back to 1926 and was an initiative of private individuals in the Corporate Area. More than a decade later, the Government established its own school-feeding programme in a bid to encourage enrolment and attendance in specific parishes.

Throughout the years, the programme has been taken into different directions with the assistance of various international organisations and governments which share the belief that access to education is vital to Jamaica's development. It was recognised that school feeding had a strong link to the achievement of educational goals and people's advancement.

Today, the national school-feeding programme aims to satisfy the nutritional needs of some 136,000 students attending basic through to high schools. There are two components to the programme: cooked meals, as well as nutri-bun snacks and milk.

Nutrition Products Limited (NPL), an agency of the Ministry of Education, currently produces and distributes snacks which comprise milk and a solid (bun, rock cake, bulla, spice cake, cheese bread) through three regional factories. It costs $780 million for NPL to provide this service to the schools.

A decision has been taken to divest NPL, Education Minister Andrew Holness disclosed recently, citing budgetary constraints. Nearly half the budget is consumed by imported components for the programme. And the Government is not prepared to make the necessary investment in equipment for NPL to enable the plant to use local inputs for new products such as fruit juices.

class involvement

We see this divestment of NPL as a golden opportunity to strengthen the linkages between school meals and local agriculture. The Ministry of Education has the benefit of a Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) study done in 2003, in which local produce and vegetables were introduced in school lunches in specific schools in St Catherine. The study found that students rated the meals as being tastier than what was previously served. Additionally, there was increased school attendance and greater class involvement in participating students. Students, school administrators and parents seem to be satisfied with the programme.

We need to move beyond talk, research, experiment and link the School Feeding Programme with a national agriculture production drive. Farmers should now be energised and be assisted by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) in sourcing quality seeds so they can achieve higher yields of produce. Schools should revitalise agricultural programmes and grow some of their own crops.

By bringing local farmers into the mix, there are tremendous spin-offs for the overall economic well-being of rural communities. Farmers will be guaranteed a livelihood, personnel will be employed to process, cook and package meals and the children's nutritional needs will be satisfied.

And it could not come at a better time, as the Ministry of Agriculture is set to launch a national 'Eat Jamaican' campaign next week, which aims to encourage healthy eating and support for local farmers and agro-processors. For us to develop a culture of eating local, it has to begin with the youth. They have to be convinced of the health benefits of local foods, and there is no better place to start than in the schools.

Ultimately, students may be asked to pay more than the current $2 for a meal. However, those who cannot pay should not be denied a meal. Healthy eating from a young age can contribute to a lifetime of well-being.

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