Beyond Meals: Zambia’s Rights-Based School Feeding Initiative Faces Implementation Challenges

In a bid to enhance learning outcomes and promote the well-being of learners, Zambia’s National School Health and Nutrition (SHN) Policy has set out an ambitious vision. The policy aims to provide quality and cost-effective health and nutrition services to all students, recognizing that socio-economic issues impact their educational journey. These challenges include deteriorating health status, poverty, malnutrition, and disease burden, leading to reduced learning capacity, absenteeism, and high dropout rates.

To address these concerns, the government initiated school feeding services, aiming to engage communities and adopt a rights-based approach to implementation. This approach extends beyond simply providing meals; it recognizes that school feeding initiatives are vital for learners’ cognitive, psychological, health, and educational development.

However, the journey towards effective school feeding services has been marked by inconsistency and occasional failure since the policy’s inception in 2006. Possible reasons for these challenges include a lack of adherence to the recommended rights-based approach, leading to unmet expectations among recipients, as well as the use of ineffective implementation models.

While international governmental and non-governmental actors have offered various support services for school feeding, a deeper examination reveals that these services often lack a clear rights-oriented focus. This raises questions about differing interpretations of the SHN Policy’s objectives and the methodologies employed.

The government has rooted the implementation of the SHN Policy within existing legal frameworks, including the Education Act, Health Service Act, Public Health Act, Day Nurseries Act, and National Food and Nutrition Act. However, critics argue that none of these acts adequately address SHN issues, potentially creating ambiguity around how school feeding initiatives should be carried out, particularly given the non-binding nature of policy documents.

At the heart of this debate lies the principle that rights are entitlements, a sentiment echoed by the SHN Policy itself. The government commits to incorporating international children’s charters and relevant documents, emphasizing that learners have the right to adequate food, education, and health services. This commitment underscores that providing a bag of food at a school is only a part of fulfilling these fundamental rights.

The human right to adequate food, for example, is based on international agreements and emphasizes the need for individuals to be empowered to provide for themselves within a structured environment. To be considered rights-based, school feeding programs must align with well-articulated rights, duties, and accountability measures at the school level.

The National Food and Nutrition Commission, a key stakeholder in the SHN Policy, sets standards for school meals. However, these standards can crumble without adequate accountability mechanisms. In the absence of effective complaint systems, the potential for rights enforcement diminishes.

A critical aspect of rights-based initiatives is the active participation of learners throughout program implementation. When learners become active participants in the process, their claims for entitlements become enforceable. Unfortunately, many school feeding programs see learners passively accepting their meals, with limited influence over the program’s design and execution.

For rights systems to function, learners must be aware of their entitlements and how to assert them. The SHN Policy calls for learners to be informed of their rights and how to hold duty bearers accountable for fulfilling their obligations. However, there remains a gap between policy intentions and on-the-ground implementation.

As Zambia’s government strives to ensure that the school feeding initiative truly uplifts learners by acknowledging their rights, the challenge lies in translating policy rhetoric into practical action. This demands a holistic approach that empowers learners, involves communities, and integrates accountability measures. Only by bridging the gap between policy and practice can Zambia’s school feeding initiatives move beyond being just about food and truly become a catalyst for holistic growth and development.

Mazuba Mwiinga

Strategic Partnerships and Communications expert.

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