School's out. Where are we going to eat?

When vacation rolls around, the last thing a kid wants to do is have to go back to school. But in Venezuela, for many school is the only place they can get a solid meal. In this special report, we highlight a plan by the Miranda state government to use state schools to feed hungry kids during their school break.

Children in Miranda state don’t have access to milk or meat at school; some get to eat three times a day but in smaller portions; others say they eat just rice. Some kids said that their dinner was pasta that their moms blended together with cinnamon; others got grilled eggplant for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Those are some of the results of the poll carried out by the Education Division of the Miranda State Government on 2581 6th-grade students from 173 schools of the region. The poll, taken between June 13th and 15th, 2016, looked to assess their current conditions concerning food and nutrition.

But the alarming figures don’t end there. According to Miranda’s Education Secretariat, 30% of students skip school because there’s no food in their homes.

Juan Maragall, secretary for Education, said that this percentage represents 12,300 children in schools affiliated to the Governor’s Office. But if we look at the national scale, there’s more than 230,000 children skipping school for the same reasons.

In view of this, Maragall said that the Education Secretariat proposed a plan to open schools during holidays to guarantee at least one meal a day for the children.

With school activities set to end in a few weeks, he said that these figures have been presented to Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz five times. To date, there has been no response.

A solution vs. the budget

In Miranda, the idea is to keep 400 out of the total 700 schools affiliated to the Governor’s Office open between July and September.

This doesn’t mean that schools are going to open in their conventional schedule. The idea is for them to work about three hours a day.

In addition to receiving their meal, during this period, students would benefit from an academic program to reinforce subjects such as Language and Mathematics.

For this to happen, the Governor’s Office would need to have an additional budget close to Bs. 400 million. This is not easy in times of crisis, and even less when the Miranda Governor’s Office doesn’t have special reserves or additional credits from the Executive Branch.

Therefore, Maragall said they launched an awareness campaign for private companies and the general public. If they make donations, the load would be lighter and 102,000 elementary school students would benefit.

The plan also requires the support of mothers and teachers.

“To open the schools we need that personnel, and also offer them an economic incentive. It’s not easy for teachers, of course, specially with inflation rates diminishing their income. That’s why we must carefully study how they’re going to get paid. We don’t deny that we’re going to need a big volunteer effort. Our goal is to lend a hand to these kids who’re going to school with an empty stomach.”

According to Maragall, the plan to open schools during holidays isn’t a solution, but at least it’s a form of support, because they know sometimes the merienda children get in school ends up being the only meal they eat during the day and, although it’s just a merienda, he says it has all the necessary nutrients and basic proteins to start the day.

He explained that, in the reports he gets daily, students often feel sick, grow pale and faint.

“This isn’t about patching up the government’s failures, nor seeking political gain from the crisis, but we can’t turn our backs on the people, we must support them however we can, mainly because it’s children’s health that’s at stake.”

That’s the importance in Professor Maragall’s project, which hasn’t had any response from the national government.

National plan

Ángel Cacique, community leader for the civil organization Alianza del Lápiz, a program that seeks to decrease violence in slums, supported Maragall’s idea and said it should be applied nationwide.

“We think this isn’t an easy task, because issues in the School Feeding System have been frequently reported all year long.”

People complain that schools have to serve arepas filled only with butter and they no longer provide the glass of milk. Aside from this, State bolivarian schools rarely offer lunch, and when that happens, mothers don’t send their children to school.

Cacique believes this extra time in school should be used to reinforce studies, specially because kids have lost close to 15 school days because of the suspensions decreed by the Executive.

However, he said that the intense shortage of food affects children the most.

He assured that the matter’s already being discussed with NGO Cáritas, with representatives of Fé y Alegría, with the Venezuelan Association of Catholic Schools (AVEC) and with the Teacher’s Federation. “Projects with these attributes are being evaluated,” he said.

Cacique, who’s also a teacher, is aware that the government is responsible for this, “But we can’t leave the people alone with this drama anyway. We know one meal a day won’t solve the enormous problems.”

Professor Luisa Pernalette, Fé y Alegría’s regional director, thinks it’s necessary to create a plan to help children as well, but she also spoke about helping teachers who don’t have the economic resources or food at home.

“We also have to take into account if mothers are willing to cooperate during those days, if teachers are available (because they’ve also been hit by the crisis) and confirm that the School Feeding System will provide the necessary food supplies. The latter is relevant in case the initiative is reproduced by other institutions,” the professor said.

The great problem in the end, will be to find financing and a committed group of volunteers, since there are many teachers whose wages and cestatickets haven’t been adjusted yet.

It’ll be difficult to convince them to work in the plan. Many will be concerned with how to stretch their own budgets and guarantee food for their own homes. But Maragall’s plan includes providing food to teachers who work in the project and mothers in charge of preparing the food, during the period of time the schools will be open.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.