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In-school nutrition key to South Africa’s alarming learner dropout rate

Child hunger remains a huge challenge in South Africa and was further exacerbated by the pandemic. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Child hunger remains a huge challenge in South Africa and was further exacerbated by the pandemic. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Published Nov 24, 2021


The pandemic has not only impacted the economy and matters of trade and investment but has also severely affected pupils, as research reveals that half a million more children than expected have dropped out of school since the inception of lockdown.

This is according to the results of a recent National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), which found that school dropout may have tripled from 230 000 pupils pre-pandemic to approximately 750 000 in May 2021.

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This places the country’s school dropout rate at the highest in 20 years, with school attendance now at the lowest level it has been during the same period.

Eugene Absolom, director of the Tiger Brands Foundation, says the many disruptions in schooling due to Covid-19 have contributed to reductions in school attendance and learning losses.

“Although remote learning was put forward as a possible solution, the societal inequality and digital divide in South Africa means that remote learning is not a practical substitute for in-person schooling for many pupils in the country.

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“Schooling was already characterised by significant levels of inequality and regular disruption, even before the pandemic. Now more than ever, we need to look for solutions and interventions that will stem the high learner dropout rate.

“In the context of the outbreak of the pandemic, we must understand that government’s priorities were focused on prevention, detection and response. However, the secondary impacts of the pandemic were often overlooked, including issues such as children who were orphaned or those who lost their caregivers.”

The National Library of Medicine’s global study revealed that one in every 200 South African children had lost a primary caregiver during the pandemic. This is one of the main factors that contributed to a rise in school dropout rates across the country.

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Child hunger remains a huge challenge in South Africa. According to a Stats SA report, more than half a million households with children aged five years or younger experienced hunger in 2017 – and this was further exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The closure of schools in March last year also meant that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) was impacted and could not function at normal capacity, resulting in many learners going without a daily meal. The NSNP benefited more than 9.6 million learners.”

A National Income Dynamic survey conducted earlier this year found that an increase in hunger is one of the biggest contributors to the school dropout rate, with 47% of pupils having missed a school meal over the past seven days at the time of the study.

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“School nutrition is one of the most effective tools to deal with the issue of pupil drop outs, and the additional pressure on food security brought about by the pandemic must be prioritised and addressed urgently.

“Much bigger emphasis must be placed on the scaling up of food assistance to people who are hard to reach through the state’s social relief efforts,” says Absolom.

This has led the Tiger Brands Foundation to establish an in-school breakfast nutrition programme to complement the lunch provided by the Department of Basic Education through the NSNP.

The foundation’s in-school breakfast model has been rolled out to 104 schools across all nine provinces in South Africa and provides a hot and nutritious breakfast to more than 78 669 learners every school day, with a total of 82 831 beneficiaries.

“We must support vulnerable learners who are at risk of dropping out. The Tiger Brands Foundation remains committed to its in-school nutrition programme, which not only supports the learner but also the learning process, helping to build a healthy and educated population.”