I guess it is perfectly normal for the government to halt distribution of school meals after thousands of students were thought poisoned by them and to request an immediate investigation into what happened and who is responsible. I fear, however, that we’ll end up pointing the finger at a few workers involved in making or storing the contaminated meals without taking the opportunity to reconsider this important issue in its entirety.
Having spent several months studying this topic when I was part of the government a few years ago, and in conjunction with the foremost expert on the subject, Dr. Habiba Wassef and numerous professors at the research centers with the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, and Scientific Research, I would like To share with you some of what I have learned.
The school meal is not supposed to be simply a sandwich or a biscuit passed out to students from time to time as permitted by the Finance Ministry’s resources and international assistance. It’s conceived as a balanced meal of everything a young pupil needs for healthy development—say, a sandwich, piece of fruit, an egg or cheese, and milk. Moreover, in Egypt, this meal must be a dry, prepackaged one rather than freshly cooked on school premises due to the lack of clean potable water in many villages.
For the program to work, it must cover all 12 million or so primary students and operate at least 120 days per year, and the meal must meet minimum international food standards. Only under these conditions will the program have positive impacts on children’s health, their physical and psychological growth, and their ability to focus in the classroom, and offer social protection to poor families. On the broader level, when run properly, the school meal program can bring massive gains in productivity and savings in health expenditure, while also employing hundreds of thousands in the production and distribution of meals. In short, a national school meal program is an extremely effective tool of social justice and can offer children the chance to break out of endemic poverty.
But in Egypt, the program faces three problems.
First, sandwiches or biscuits of variable nutritional content continue to be offered when what is required is a well-balanced meal. Although the former is easier and offers some short-term benefits, it doesn’t meet the social and developmental objective. Unfortunately, even international bodies like the World Food Program and donors prefer this tack because it lets them highlight quantitative accomplishments without looking too closely at actual results.
Second, the Egyptian government doesn’t provide the financial resources needed to make the school meal a core national program like social pensions and bread subsidies. It makes do every year with funds drummed up out of the public treasury and grants from international donors. As a result, the program is neither consistent nor universal; school meals aren’t a basic right but instead a variable expense subject to each government’s spending priorities.
I’m not denying the scale of the resources necessary. Three years ago, the annual cost of the program was estimated at LE10 billion, and I imagine it’s closer to LE15 billion today. But the cost pales in comparison to the major economic and social benefits, or even compared to what the state spends on much less important projects and facilities.
The third problem is that when the state expanded the meal program, it turned its managment to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and then to the National Service Agency under the armed forces, without providing adequate resources or the comprehensive policy needed to implement the program. Moreover, these two bodies are not the only relevant agencies. Such a complex program requires collective action involving dozens of state bodies and the private and civic sector working under a single government umbrella. It requires an institutional framework that can oversee coordination and close cooperation between all these actors at every stage, from meal design and manufacture to distribution and storage, meal provision to children, the assessment of meal quality and safety and its health, social, and economic benefits, and the drafting of rules to protect beneficiaries. The reason, I think, this did not happen is that the program continues to be seen as just another type of food subsidy for the poor, to be overseen by the Ministry of Social Solidarity within budget limits. It’s not seen as a national program that could change the future of millions of kids and make a breakthrough in social protection and economic growth.
The solution to the food poisoning crisis is not to suspend the distribution of school meals or pass out biscuits of questionable nutritional benefit. It’s not to blame the Ministry of Social Solidarity and hold a few junior employees accountable, or to involve the armed forces in an issue that lies at the core of the civil state’s administrative function. The solution is to take the proper institutional step: to make school nutrition a national program capable of changing Egyptian society, provide the necessary resources and attention, and set up a new coordinating framework for implementation by state agencies and ministries.
With my best wishes to all the girls and boys made ill by the school meal for a speedy recovery.