“The food which they offer at school is not that bad,” said 18-year-old Candy Mulaudzi from Mpheni Village in Limpopo. But the grade 12 learner at Muthuhadini Secondary School comes from a struggling family who cannot always give her money to buy food at the school tuckshop, which she prefers.

“I sometimes eat [at the school feeding scheme] if I am hungry and there is no money at home but if some of my friends and classmates see me queuing to get food from the feeding scheme they laugh and make jokes.”

She said that despite being hungry some days, which are worse when she has to stay after school for extra classes, “I do not always eat feeding scheme food”.

Simuthandile Moloi, a grader nine learner from Mabuya Secondary School in Daveyton Gauteng, also relies on her school’s feeding scheme. Although she now eats there every day, in the beginning she felt embarrassed – and hungry.

“At first I used to go hungry the whole day or eat in hiding where no one would see me because I used to be ashamed of what people would say.”

National School Nutrition Programme

The National School Nutrition Programme provides at least one meal to nine million school-going children in South Africa each school day in quintile one to three schools, those classified as the poorest. It was one of 10 programmes former President Nelson Mandela launched in his first 100 days in office and currently has a budget of about R7 million a year.

Many of the poorest learners depend on this source of nutrition and Department of Education spokesperson Steve Mabona recently confirmed to Health-e News that some learners “depend on [the school nutrition programme] as their first and last meal of the day”.

Research has shown that inadequate nutrition in children affects academic performance, and consequently future life prospects, very simply because, as Mabona said, if a learner is hungry “it will be difficult for them to comprehend anything that is taught”.

Studies have also linked malnutrition in children to an increased risk of violent behaviour and psychological problems later in life.

“Nutrition is one component in an essential package to get an education,” said Dr Alison Misselhorn, director of research for the Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit that provides meals for 25 000 at-risk children daily.

She said that learners going hungry because of the stigma of poverty or hunger is “very concerning” and that, besides the physical health risks, “it can have a traumatic impact on children”.

Global problem

Professor Sheryl Hendricks, a food security policy expert from the University of Pretoria, said this is not a new or local phenomenon.

“It’s an age old problem. When I was young I lived next to a poor school and they had the same issue there,” she said. “Eating at school is an issue related to which socio-economic group you come from.”

The United States-based non-profit Move for Hunger, which delivers unwanted food items from people’s homes to food banks, noted on their website: “The stigma of poverty can often deter people in need from taking advantage of programs designed to assist them and improve their quality of living. They fear being labeled or seen as an inferior part of society, rather than just someone who is just doing whatever they can to survive.”

Hendricks said that other countries like the United Kingdom introduced universal feeding programmes – where it is mandatory for every learner to eat from the school’s scheme – to solve these issues. But, she said, this is not a feasible solution in a resource-constrained setting like South Africa where the neediest need to be prioritised.

According to Hendricks, the children experiencing this kind of stigma are more likely to come from rural communities, communities like Mulaudzi’s, the matric learner from Limpopo.

“Rural communities are much closer, for example if you stand in queue to get food from the school feeding then it’s going to be known to the wider community. Opting out could be about not wanting to bring shame to your family,” she said.

Children in urban areas are less likely to be affected because they often have to commute further from their homes and, she said, “your personal circumstances and family are more anonymous”.

Worse in high schools

The likelihood of being stigmatised based on what you eat for school lunch is also much higher in high school-going children, according to Misselhorn.

“The older they get the higher the risk, but we don’t see this in the early schooling at all – the young don’t tend to feel stigma,” she said.

This seems true for nine-year-old Mudodzwa Begwa who is also from rural Limpopo and eats from his school feeding scheme sometimes when money is tight at home.

But, when asked, the grade four learner in Dzivhani Primary School in Mphego village said: “I have never been laughed at or called poor for eating at the feeding scheme.”

In a country where one in five families are food insecure, according to Hendricks, these children cannot afford to skip what is sometimes their only meal in a day.

But the solutions are complex and are rooted in poverty and inequality.

Hendricks suggested that the Department of Basic Education could “use the curriculum to try address these issues”.

“How can teenagers in high school cope with these issues practically during an already very intense period of their lives? We need to give kids more coping skills especially on how to deal with the peer pressure side in particular.”

Misselhorn said that another possible solution would be to improve nutrition education amongst learners.

“If kids are fully aware of the nutritional benefit of healthy food and its effect on their ability to concentrate and learn, one would hope that would go some way in outweighing the fear of being stigmatised,” she said.

But “these issues are very personalised and individualised”, said Hendricks, as some resilient learners seem unaffected by judgement from their peers.

Victor Mashao is a grade 10 learner at Serurubele High School in Khujwana, a rural area in Limpopo, who eats at his school’s feeding scheme daily.

He “does not really worry” about “those who mock us saying eating from the school means we are poor and don’t eat at home”.

For him the benefits outweigh the mockery.

“I sometimes go to school hungry. But even when I find there is no food when I come back home after class I don’t worry too much because I have already eaten at school,” he said.

But as long as we live in an unequal society with high rates of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity, said Misselhorn, “we are never ever going to get rid of this stigma”.

An edited version of this story was first published by the Daily Maverick