Nepali students get a second helpingMunicipalities topping up Rs15 per meal provided by the central government could lead to inequity in children’s nutrition
After the Nepal government announced it would provide Rs15 per meal for community schools to serve lunch (दिवा खाजा) to students, headmasters in Kathmandu took a stand.
“Rs15 is not sufficient, we demanded additional money. The municipality also realised that Rs15 was not enough,” says Dilli Prasad Sharma Khanal, principal at Vijaya Memorial Secondary School in Dillibazar.
Last year, Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) responded by topping up the Rs15 with another Rs10, and also said it would provide the full Rs25 to feed students in Grades 7 and 8 in its 89 community schools. The central government program provides meals to Grade 6 only. The total cost to Kathmandu is Rs90 million in the current year’s budget, says Rukmila Itani in the city’s education office.
KMC joins Tokha and Budhanilkantha as local governments in Kathmandu Valley that have concluded that the central government’s funding is insufficient to feed students a nutritious meal. While other local governments outside the valley have done the same, the move raises the question of equity for those students whose meals remain limited to Rs15, an amount roundly criticised as inadequate to cook a filling and nutritious meal.
According to a report in Setopati, Beg Bahadur Thapa, headmaster of Palanchoki Bhagwati Secondary School in Kavre, turned to local organisations after the school decided that Rs15 could not provide an adequate meal. He collected enough to add Rs5 to each meal.
“Even with Rs20, it was not possible to provide a balanced lunch as per the instructions,” said Thapa. Other needed resources were also missing. “The school lacks classrooms, there is no space to manage the kitchen. The role of school helper is also varied.” In the end, the school bought meals prepared outside the school.
It is no surprise that some schools are ‘topping up’ their meal budgets. In 2022 the Nepal government official leading the program told Nepali Times that funding was his greatest challenge. The bill for school meals was nearly $70 million in 2020, the highest cost in the education budget after teachers’ salaries.
“Each child is allotted only Rs15, this is the main challenge. This amount is very low—prices are increasing day by day and there are management costs. How can we survive?” said Centre for Education and Human Resources Development (CEHRD) Director Ganesh Poudel.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing food for Nepal schools in various forms for 46 years, and has partnered with the Nepal Government as the latter has gradually assumed control of the programme in the last decade. From 2017 to 2020 the diya khaja budget almost quadrupled (from US$20 million to nearly $70 million), and external support fell from $4.2 million to $2.8 million in 2020, according to a WFP report.
In a 2022 interview WFP Representative and Country Director Robert Kasca said participation of communities in school feeding will be essential as WFP transitions from being a provider of food to focusing on technical assistance, by 2024. “The most important thing to me is that we get complete buy-in from the local communities… they (local representatives) do have money, it’s not that they don’t have it. It’s how they allocate and spend it.
Itani says that KMC decided to top up the government’s meal budget to address malnutrition and a high drop-out rate in community schools. KMC has a system for checking the quality of the meals, and cleanliness, she adds, but with the programme barely six months old, data is scarce.
Early feedback is that attendance is up, but schools are grappling with a lack of resources such as kitchens, utensils and designated staff. Some are able to prepare meals in an existing kitchen or turn to mothers groups for help while other schools buy from outside providers. And while some schools are following the central government’s menu, which calculates amounts of energy, fat, protein and essential vitamins so that meals deliver 30% of a child’s daily nutrition needs, others do not.
At Harisiddhi Secondary School in Lalitpur, Principal Aasha Devi Maharjan says the municipality has pledged to top up the central government’s Rs15 per meal, but has not done so to date. However, the school is now feeding students up to Grade 6 meals that cost more than Rs50 thanks to funding from the China Foundation for Rural Development.
The foundation’s Smiling Children Feeding Programme started in March 2022 and research prior to the programme’s launch found that many students of community schools come from families of daily wage earners, who often start work early. As a result, many children are given Rs10-20 in the morning to buy food instead of eating a cooked meal, says Mukti Marasini, Chairman of the Global Cooperation for Development (GCD), an NGO working with the foundation.
The feeding program provides Rs57.3 per meal to 21 schools in Lalitpur and Kathmandu, including Rs7.3 to create and fund mothers groups, which cook the midday meals. Schools combine the China Foundation money with the central government’s allotment, Marasini adds during a visit to Harisiddhi school, and can even serve second helpings to extra hungry kids.
Marasini says GCD worked with nutritionists to determine the amount needed to provide an adequate meal. “Rs15 won’t even buy a cup of tea,” he says about the government allotment.
Students get a different menu each day, such as egg with a bean-vegetable curry and puri on the day we visited. They also receive a fruit snack in the morning. Maharjan says that since they started serving the meals in August, far fewer students complain of illnesses or are absent.
“Once word got out about the school’s meals more than 100 families approached us to enrol their children but we had to say no,” she adds. “It was the middle of the year and we wouldn’t have had the budget to feed an extra 100 students.”
The central government worked with WFP to develop the Rs15 meal, but the amount is being revisited, says the UN agency. “We are working closely with our government counterparts to understand the details of how much the Rs15 actually buy, in particular in the context of recent inflation trends and in rural areas.”
“Early indications do show that the transfer values should be reviewed as the situation has changed since these values were first determined in 2015. Ultimately we advocate for an equitable approach that ensures a nutritious meal,” added WFP.
Ganesh Poudel from CEHRD was unavailable for comment.
Thursday, 9 March is International School Meals Day. Worldwide, 388 million students, or 1 in 2 schoolchildren, received at least one meal or snack per day at school before the COVID-19 pandemic, in what WFP calls the world’s “most extensive social safety net.”