It was a cold winter afternoon when the sirens started to wail in Tsakane on Gauteng’s East Rand. Gladys Nkuna was preparing food in the kitchen of a local school. “We were working, and suddenly the ambulances were at the school and children were being taken by them,” remembers Nkuna, who asked us not to use her real name.
About 10 ambulances with paramedics had descended on Tholulwazi Secondary School.
Almost 90 teachers and learners were experiencing stomach cramps and diarrhoea – symptoms of food poisoning.
Municipal health inspectors later confirmed this to be the case. The culprit? A meal of samp, beans and butternut served as part of the school’s feeding programme.
Investigation reveals rat-infested storerooms
Tholulwazi learners are some of the more than 9.6-million children who depend on the national school feeding programme, according to department of basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga. The programme was introduced in 1994 to curb hunger by providing, ideally, two meals a day to learners.
Almost half of all South African households are hungry or at risk of going hungry, the Human Science Research Council’s 2012 national nutrition survey has found. The United Nations International Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme argue that school feeding programmes can play a powerful role in alleviating short-term hunger and help to improve children’s cognitive abilities.
Environmental health inspectors eventually traced the outbreak of food poisoning at Tholulwazi in July last year to the bacteria Clostridium perfringens, which is often found in uncooked foods. The germ can also blossom in cooked food that has been kept warm for long periods, as often happens in institutions such as hospitals, schools and prisons, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Officials also uncovered a rat-infested storeroom used to store the plates the learners had brought from home, explains a municipal report. The investigation found that the municipality had not certified the school to provide food. The school still has not been certified, but continues to serve meals.
Many schools ill-equipped to feed the future
Currently, 1 586 of the 1 630 Gauteng schools that are part of the national feeding programme don’t have proper kitchens, says Gauteng education department spokesperson Oupa Bodibe.
The incident at Tholulwazi may not be an isolated one; a growing body of research suggests schools may lack not only the equipment but also the training needed to implement the government’s feeding scheme.
A 2016 study, published in the Journal of Community Health, surveyed 300 Mpumalanga staff members tasked with feeding learners, and randomly selected from almost 1 500 schools that were part of the national programme. The Unisa research also found that close to a third of them had no regulations in place to monitor where food was stored or how it should be served. About two-thirds of schools had no formal procedures to outline how food temperatures were monitored.
In Mpumalanga, about six out of 10 food handlers surveyed have not received any on-the-job training. Research conducted in 2008 by government’s Public Service Commission found that less than a quarter of food handlers in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo had been trained.
Following the food poisoning outbreak at Tholulwazi, health inspectors recommended that food handlers be trained in food safety and how to wash their hands.
Nkuna says she was called to the school soon after the incident and made to sign a “training” register before being dismissed. She had received no training.
Gauteng inspectors found that the school lacked compulsory equipment, such as stainless steel food storage shelves as well as plates, bowls and cups. This situation is widespread; a 2014 study published in the South African Journal of Science found that more than half of the 10 Bloemfontein schools sampled lacked the basic equipment required to meet national school feeding standards.
Nkuna says food handlers at Tholulwazi worked with what they had.
She explains: “We found the kitchen like that when we took over. We thought it was normal, but I think everything in that kitchen needs to be renewed.”
Treasury has pumped millions into school feeding schemes
The treasury provides funding for school feeding equipment. Since 2011, Gauteng has received more than R20-million as part of this. Bodibe says it takes about R100 000 to provide equipment and food for a school of about 900 learners. Tholulwazi caters for almost 1450 pupils.
Bodipe says the province will have installed 180 kitchens by the end of 2017 and is providing 400 gas stoves to schools.
When schools fall short of safety standards, national guidelines say district officials should be among the first to know. In Gauteng, the education department has appointed about one official in each of its 15 districts to monitor school feeding programmes – but the province is home to 1630 schools with daily feeding schemes, Bodibe says.
In the wake of the Tholulwazi incident, the province says it is urging schools to work more closely with municipalities on issues such as pest control.
Unisa researchers say more training is needed in the national school feeding programme and that food handlers are desperate for it. Despite workers not knowing what food safety guidelines entailed, more than 70% of those surveyed in the Mpumalanga study said increased food safety would be a benefit.
“Food-borne disease outbreaks are becoming a frequent occurrence in school settings due to a lack of adequate infrastructure as well as inadequate food safety knowledge,” write the study’s authors.
They conclude: “It is recommended that food safety training be provided to staff and managers of the national school nutrition programme. In a school setting, where thousands of infants and children are served food daily, an outbreak of food-borne disease can lead to sickness, which can result in death.”