Pupils jostle to get in the queue first when the meal is served. Pictures: Doctor Ncgobo

Durban - It is just before midday and a cold, winter wind is sweeping through the grounds of Waterloo Secondary, in Verulam, north of Durban.
The girls make their way up the hill briskly.

They walk in groups, their arms linked together to keep warm. They giggle at the boys, who seem less perturbed by the weather.

The boys move more slowly, and some are not wearing jerseys.

The children all congregate on a long, narrow veranda in front of a strip of small classrooms.

Then the aroma of the spices blending together and the promise of something warm to eat pulls them closer.

A woman with a big smile and a bigger bucket, emerges from a classroom at the end of the veranda.

Chaos erupts as the children start jostling for a spot up front.

Some have plastic plates, some have bowls. Some haveplastic containers, some just have old margarine tubs.

But whatever the empty vessel in their hands, it is given to the woman with the bucket and returned full.

Today, lunch is fish curry.

* Maya, who is in Grade 12, says it is not her favourite meal. “The chicken is the best,” she says.

But this is a meal and, for many eating it, it is their first of the day.

“I don’t usually have time to eat breakfast,” Maya says, as she has to get to school in time.

For her, that means leaving home at 6am to walk to school. And so she does it on an empty stomach.

Then it is about six more hours before she eats.

Asked if she is hungry, she says, “Yes, I’m starving!

“And the next time I’ll eat will be at dinner time - at around 7pm,” she adds. “That’s why this meal is so important.”

Her classmate, * Bandile, does usually eat breakfast.

He lives closer to school and has more time in the morning to do so.

“But this meal is important,” he says.

Bandile does not have anything else to eat while he is at school. No-one packs him lunch.

Women prepare fish curry for pupils at Waterloo Secondary School as part of the education department’s school feeding scheme.

“This is it,” he says.

He says it is near impossible to concentrate on an empty stomach.

“You can’t focus,” he says.

These two pupils, along with their schoolmates, are among the millions of children who benefit from the National Schools Nutrition Programme.

It was initiated in 1994 as a poverty relief programme for pupils in quintile 1, 2 and 3 - the poorest of the poor - schools, most of whom come from destitute families.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the Department of Education feeds 2.2 million children, at 5 250 schools across the province, a balanced meal - including a carbohydrate, a protein and a vegetable component - every day.

It has put aside R1.4-billion for the programme this year.

At the heart of it all are millions of children, like Maya and Bandile, who really need the food they receive through the programme.

The Mercury

* The real names of the children have been withheld.