I have become most worried of late over the entire issues surrounding the safety of children at school; this has let me into direct involvement in social movement with focus on the safety of the school child.
Most worrisome of late is the trendy act of schools making lunch provisions for school children, in some schools it is compulsory while in others it is elective. What this translates into is that parents have no right anymore to determine what meal their children have for lunch which some parents (mostly career ones) see as a big relief to them. This trend does not take into cognisance that there are some children that are very sensitive to certain meals which their digestive systems are not too comfortable with. One of my children falls into this category, he is very sensitive to beans and each time he eats beans it gives him running stomach continuously. I am not aware if provisions are made for such peculiarities.
My concern is not just on the food only but I also believe schools should be allowed to focus more on the core of their business instead of getting distracted by other add-ons which seemingly create convenience but has a huge health and safety underlying consequences. I think we should allow the schools to focus more on education and if they want to serve lunch or snacks to school children, it should be sub contracted to a third party reputable caterer whose hygiene and food preparation processes are verified and certified safe. If you sub contract feeding of the school children to a caterer, that caterer becomes a food vendor to the school, it is the right of the school to determine the processes and hygiene standard they want the caterer to operate with. The school administration has the right to audit the food preparation site, processes, primary sources of food stuff, the medical status of the catering team and many more. When we do not do this, we create room for the safety and health and our children to be compromised, ideally this should be government responsibility through the Public Health Unit under the Ministry of Health. We also feel this agency has also failed the Nigerian public and in getting things right, the responsibility has fallen on the organisation that contracts the vendor.
If the food handlers have Salmonella typhi, Hepatitis A, Tuberculosis or other form of food borne diseases, the school children stand a risk of contracting such diseases. Under the Food Safety and Security Standards Protocol and even the Public Health Standard, it is expected that before anyone gets involved in the process of handling public food, the individual must undergo a food handlers medical examination to ascertain his/her level of fitness to handle food. It is also important that food samples, cooked and uncooked are also routinely taken for scientific analysis to guaranty a level of safety for consumers. We do not see this happen in most times in our environment.
Let us quickly take a look at the 16th July 2013 case of Food Poisoning of School Children in Bihar School in India. In Indian Government’s efforts to make children go to school and also have a decent meal while in school as a result of poverty in India which has led to malnutrition in children, the government made lunch available for every school children in each school day. This policy provides mid-day meal for roughly 120 million students between the ages of 4 – 12 years old across 73,000 schools in India Monday to Friday.
Disaster struck in July 2013 when at least 23 students died and a dozen more fell ill after eating mid-day meal contaminated with pesticide. It was reported that the children who complained about the food were rebuked by the school Head Mistress who has been earlier informed by the Head, Cook that the new cooking oil was discoloured and smelled odd. The cook was not left out of this incident because she was also hospitalised as a result of the poisoning. Children complained of stomach ache 30 minutes after eating the meal, they took ill with vomiting and diarrhoea. The number of sick children overwhelmed the school and some were immediately sent home forcing their parents to seek help on their own. 16 children died on-site, 4 children reported dead on arrival at the hospital while others died at the hospital, a total of 48 children fell ill from contaminated food.
Indications were that the food was contaminated by an organophosphate, a class of chemical commonly found in insecticides. A certain Dr. Amat Kant JHA said the survivors were emitting toxic vapours which led to the suspicion that they have been poisoned by organophosphate. Police forensic report finally claimed the cooking oil contained “very toxic” levels of monocrotophos, an agricultural pesticide. It was later found out that the oil was purchased by the Head Mistress from her Husband’s grocery store. Officials reported that they believed the cooking oil must have been stored in containers formerly used in storing pesticides. 19 of the students’ bodies were buried on a near school ground in protest but these had no means of bringing the children back to life.
I took my time to share this story because a lot can be deduced from this. Yes, it is difficult to keep inspecting the number of cooking sites catering for about 120 million children across 73,000 schools but I feel if it impairs the safety of our children, we will all device a way to work safely around this issue common us all.
It is important also for parents to get involved in the goings-on in their children’s schools; we are most times too busy to get concerned. Every extra money we earn at the expense of our children has a costly effect on the long run; the effect is never instantaneous but cumulative. Decisions on how schools are governed, policies formulated etc. are mostly taken in Parents Teachers Association (PTA) meetings which most parents find extremely difficult to attend.
If the issue of safety and security of the school child must be rightly addressed, it must run on 3 pillars:
· The Government
· The School Management
· The Parents
We need more active involvement in clearly engaging the schools and also making useful contributions in influencing Government’s policies on education, we cannot be disjointed from this when our children are deeply involved. Let’s not add to the number of children that have died in pursuit for education but let’s take a stand and collectively correct the ills in schools to enable our children have a healthy and safe environment for academic excellence.
Our next publication will be on School Bus Safety, we need you to follow up on the sequence and leave a comment after reading.