“The Students Are Hungry”: the Lack of Adequate Food Provision in Schools as Great Unaddressed Question of Georgia’s Educational Reforms
by Tata Burduli, Senior Researcher at GeoWel Research
As we have attempted to document over this series of articles, the situation in the Georgian school system has seen tremendous improvements in recent years. Schools have been rebuilt, teachers retrained and paid better, and attempts have been made to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. Since 2008, the budget of the Ministry of Education has increased by 3.8 times from GEL 457 million to GEL 1.7 billion, and this has had real results in terms of the quality of most children’s education in Georgia.
But in the course of conducting our research as part of the Georgian Education Advocacy Project it has become apparent that there is one area where reforms have been seriously lacking, and where there is no clear plan to improve things: schoolchildren’s nutrition.
Unlike many countries, Georgian schools have no statutory obligation to provide meals, nor to ensure that pupils are sufficiently fed, including socially disadvantaged pupils. Guidelines do exist for providing food in schools but the schools are not obliged to provide food or a canteen. Almost three quarters of Georgian schools do not have cafeterias, forcing children to either bring food from home or purchase often low-quality food in shops. For children from poor families, this can often mean going hungry.
Unlike many other aspects of school reform, in-school nutrition is almost completely overlooked in the national conversation about education. Indeed, it is an issue only when school canteens – which are private entities, leasing canteen space from school, trained by the Ministry on nutrition – provide bad food and children get sick—a terrible occurrence to be sure, but one that obscures the bigger issue that many Georgian children are not getting the food they need during the school day. This despite the voluminous research attesting to the crucial necessity of children being properly fed if they are to be able to learn in school, and the fact that schools represent an ideal setting to support healthy nutrition in children and adolescents, being when food and health habits are formed.
Around three-quarters (74%) of schools in Georgia do not have cafeterias. The quarter of schools with canteens, mostly being in urban areas where students are concentrated, feed more than a quarter of students. Still, the widespread absence of canteens leaves many children in a difficult situation regarding their daytime nutrition. In schools without a canteen, children either have to bring their lunch from home or visit shops, bakeries or a street vendor nearby. These bakeries usually mostly sell pastries and snacks, undermining children’s nutrition.
“I teach at a village school, which has not had a cafeteria in a long time. It’s a fact that a child needs to eat between the morning and evening. Some students manage to bring something from home, some don’t. So, us teachers have to manage something for the kids. The shop is on the other side of the street, we have to accompany kids, help them buy something and bring them back. Some parents bring food to their kids during the day, but not everyone. The shop does not have proper food, only snacks, so the children have to switch to such food. Whatever they buy is not a healthy lunch, but they don’t have any other choice,” – a teacher from Kutaisi told us.
The Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) Georgia conducted an infrastructure assessment of all Georgian public schools in 2018-2019. Unfortunately, the school census did not include an assessment of the school canteen. However, the database did have information on water distribution to school canteens, which we can use as an indicator of the existence of a cafeteria in school. According to the MCA database, only 21% of Georgia’s public schools have water distributed to the canteen. This figure is consistent with the above-mentioned figure of 2019. Although, it also means that 3% of canteens are unable to prepare food on spot, as there is no water supply. Moreover, the situation regarding water distribution to the existing canteens is alarming. Only 46% are in a satisfactory condition. 46% are in poor condition and 7% are damaged and need replacement.
There have been some tentative steps at addressing the issue: in 2015 the Minister of Labour, Health and Social Affairs approved non-binding national recommendations entitled ‘Healthy and Safe Nutrition at School’ which outlined school nutrition standards in detail and forbade the sale of snacks in schools. The document states that it is necessary to consume food from each of the four groups everyday: 1) fruits and vegetables, 2) grains and cereals, 3) milk and dairy or their substitutes, and 4) lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds. The document also describes healthy snacks, important minerals and vitamins and relevant types of food, and lists the types of produce or components that need to be minimized in school meals, such as fats, sugars and salts. It also provides general recommendations on how to store and prepare food, gives a 2-week menu sample for breakfast, snack, lunch and supper, and recommendations from Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy. For instance, Switzerland, Germany and France recommend consuming fruits and vegetables at least 5 times a day and at least 5 different types per day.
The recommendations were formally accepted by Ministry of Education in 2017 who also took responsibility for monitoring the policy. Under these recommendations, the ministry banned the sale of chewing gum, candy, chocolate, flavoured snacks such as chips, gummy bears, etc., food with mayonnaise, mushrooms, canned products, confectionary with cream, carbonated drinks except mineral water, and thermally unprocessed egg.
In addition, in 2017 trainings were held for public school food providers. However, there was no enforcement of this ordinance and set of recommendations. The recommendations were issued without an underlying school nutrition strategy, vision, or policy, according to Education Expert Revaz Apkhazava.
Even the 26% schools which do possess school canteens have not been fulfilling these recommendations. For instance, in 2019 the National Food Agency inspected 80 canteens. The NFA database does not have information on the violations detected during these inspections, but it does show that 59 schools had repeat visits, implying that around 74% of the schools needed to make improvements. For instance, in 2019, five Batumi schools were fined for not specifying expiry dates on the food in the canteens.
According to the teachers we spoke to, the government (National Food Agency) inspectors generally inspect the cleanliness of the canteen and the expiry date of the produce offered, but not the types and quality of food they offer. Allegedly, there are also cases when forbidden products ‘disappear’ from the canteen counters during inspection, or that the produce forbidden for students is ‘officially’ sold solely to teachers.
Thus, even where there is a canteen, the food offered is rarely healthy, mostly snacks like chocolate, potato chips, low-quality pastry and soft drinks. Students with low socio-economic background are at a particular disadvantage since often they are unable to buy even snacks or starchy food “and the hungry kids watch how others eat. This is a more difficult and heavier situation than having unhealthy food in the canteen,” worried a teacher from Kutaisi municipality.
“Our school had a buffet before the pandemic, but it did not sell healthy food, only bakery and confectionery products: lobiani, khachapuri, etc. We always say that new reforms do not have a point unless there is free food provided for the schoolchildren, at least some free food. So many children starve in the country, and the school has an opportunity to make up for it. I think this is the main problem of the education system – the students are hungry, a teacher from Rustavi told us. “And the recess is only ten minutes, so even if they have food from home, they don’t have enough time to eat it. This is a very big challenge of our education system.”
According to some teachers, the canteens that do exist are slowly turning into snack shops, rather than cafeterias, occupying only a very small space in newly renovated schools. “It’s basically for rapid snacking, so that children don’t faint. Not everyone is able to buy food during a five-to-ten-minute recess when all the kids instantly rush to the buffet. And the space is so small, they are unable to eat there, they stand in the corridors and eat. Then the bell rings and you let them finish their lunch. They stand by the classroom door for ten minutes to finish eating and this is also a problem. It’s a problem for us, the teachers and for the children as well, everyone wants to eat but have to do it on the go,” says another teacher from Kutaisi municipality.
According to the Global Child Nutrition Foundation Survey 2019, low-income and high-income countries with large-scale school meal provision programs cover on average 17% and 37% of the entire student body, respectively. The figure is slightly higher for primary schools of lower-income countries – just above 20%. The vast majority, 88%, of meal provision programs of the 85 analysed countries serve meals in schools.
For example, in the UK a typical school meal costs about £2 (GEL 8.6) and is usually paid by a parent in advance, online. The meal includes a main course containing fruits and vegetables, protein (for instance, meat, fish, cheese) and carbohydrates (for instance, rice, pasta), a dessert and a drink. There are rules about how the food is prepared, for example there are limits on the quantity of fried food. In addition, children are eligible for free school meals if their annual household income is below £7,400 (approximately GEL 32,000) excluding benefits, or if they receive certain welfare payments – a threshold, based on which more than one in five schoolchildren (1.7 million) in England were eligible for free meals in January 2021.
In Georgia meanwhile, children from socio-economically disadvantaged families are mostly left without food during the school day.
“Social inequality is most visible while the kids are eating,” says a teacher from Kutaisi. “Because there were kids that did not bring any food from home and there were kids who brought more than they could carry.”
The main issue for the canteen seems to be the financial unattractiveness of providing healthy food, as described to us by a teacher from Shida Kartli.
“[The canteen] had to pay the lease. They did not have much profit with only healthy food, it was in a losing position. Plus, the kids love chips, Coca-Cola, non-healthy food, so if you don’t have those in the canteen, they go to the shop and buy it there.”
Thus, for selling healthy food to be profitable for the canteen operator, the price should reflect the cost– a price that many students’ families are unable to pay, and that the state is unwilling to. And thus, unhealthy food habits are formed, that might be difficult to change in adulthood and will reflect on long-term health.
‘Promoting better diets and nutrition through schools can increase the health and well-being of students and families, creating benefits that extend beyond the classroom to households and communities,’ the FAO states. There are numerous studies attesting the positive relationship between breakfast and lunch and students’ academic performance. For instance, a longitudinal study conducted in California’s all public schools in 2008-2013 showed that students who eat healthy school lunches score higher on the California state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches.
In addition, 2010-2013 study showed a positive relationship between getting free meals and improved academic performance for both poor and non-poor students. Increased participation in school lunch was correlated with improved academic performance.
Therefore, in a country with 26% of its children living below the poverty line, the government needs to pay attention to the food offered to school students, develop a long-term nutrition-related strategy and school meal budget for the socially disadvantaged, and encourage, enforce and monitor the implementation of the guidelines adopted in 2017. This also entails maintaining the school infrastructure – canteen space and water supply in line with the sanitary and hygiene requirements.
Earlier articles from education series:
- The Path to Inclusion: How Georgia’s Education System is Trying to Find Place for Children with Special Educational Needs
- The ‘Oscars of Education’: How a Competition is Helping Boost Prestige for Georgia’s Undervalued Teachers
- The Language Barrier: Ongoing Challenge to Provide Decent Education to Georgia’s Minority Schoolchildren
- The Digital Divide: How the Pandemic Has Exposed Inequalities in the Georgian Education System