Child hunger remains one of the biggest challenges in regular school attendance.
Despite progress made over the years, close to a million children who have already attained school-going age still miss school because they lack food.
In 2018, the Ministry of Education said more than 850,000 children aged between six and 17 years were out of school, with six out of 10 children in arid and semi-arid, and informal settlements.
Mandera topped the list of nine counties which accounted for the highest numbers with 124,000 children out of school. It was followed by Garissa, Wajir, Turkana, West Pokot, Isiolo, Marsabit, Tana River and Nairobi respectively.
Mandera accounted for 15 per cent of the children, Turkana 10 per cent, Garissa 8.9 per cent and Wajir 6.7 per cent.
Many of the children, a third, are living with disabilities while others were girls from extremely poor households and broken families.
The government introduced free primary education in 2003 but a substantial number of children who should benefit from it are still out of school.
Children from rural households, especially those from poor families, and those from informal settlements in urban areas are worst hit.
According to Save the Children, 36 per cent of people in Kenya, many of them children, live in poverty with 21 per cent of school-age children are out of school.
Another study by Nehemiah International Network, a faith-based international NGO, said more than 1.2 million children of school-going age in Kenya are out of school and involved in child labour to supplement family income.
When a severe drought hit the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya, affecting 2.7 million people in late 2016, UNICEF said over 180,000 children did not go to school because there was no water or school feeding programmes.
It is this sad reality that Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja seeks to change by making it mandatory for the national government to provide food for children of school-going age.
Mr Sakaja has come up with a Bill, the National School Lunch Bill, that once assented to into law, will make it mandatory for every public school to have a feeding programme.
The school meals progamme will be funded by the government together with the private sector and driven by the parents and the local community. The national school feeding programme will see the government subsidise money paid by parents to sustain the programme with parents required to only pay Sh5.
“The Bill will make it mandatory for the school to have the programme with the national government providing the resources. The Bill should be ready for tabling in the Senate in two weeks' time,” says Mr Sakaja.
There will be a committee to sit with the parents, the private sector to discuss with nutritionists on the diet, the quantities to be given. Right now, the proposal is pegged on 650 grammes of food per child.
The Bill will provide a framework for accountability in the use of the resources and involvement of the locals in overseeing the programme.
There will also be a provision that allows capital expenditure including the building of kitchen as well as getting equipment like trucks for distribution of food.
The Bill will also specify how the county governments will come in as currently they are limited because they can only be involved with Early Childhood and Development Education (ECDEs).
This is by providing a structure where there will be a committee which will incorporate education officer form the county, parents and locals.
“Many governors want to assist schools but they are told education is not devolved and so they are limited and they can only deal with ECDEs,” said the senator.
The school meals programme is set to boost local farmers as the food will be sourced locally, providing a ready market to sellers and farmers.
“Cabbages are rotting, milk is being poured and maize is developing aflatoxin yet our children are going hungry,” he said.
Among inequality-related problems, child hunger stands out for its urgency and symbolic resonance — after decades of exposés and reforms, Kenya still struggles to feed its young.
Mr Sakaja points out that many countries across the world have similar programmes, including the US which has a National School Lunch Act. Latin America and the Caribbean also have a framework for school feeding as well as India which is feeding over 100 million children.
“Instead of giving MPs and MCAs [Members of County Assemblies] millions or venturing into huge infrastructural programmes, why can’t we feed the most vulnerable in the society?” he said.
Mr Sakaja says the ripple effect of the programme will be much more than getting children to eat but will improve enrollment in schools, boost discipline and attitude by the children.
The Senator said he was inspired by a similar programme being run by Wawira Njiru in three counties of Kiambu, Nairobi and Mombasa.
The programme, Food for Education, began as a pilot project in Ms Njiru’s hometown of Ruiru with the sole aim of providing cheap and nourishing lunches to primary school children from poor families in a bid to ensure no child has to learn on an empty stomach.
Dry staples such as rice, beans, maize and vegetables form the basis of the food served to the now 33,000 children drawn from about 20 schools in the programme.
Starting with just one stove and enough food for 25 children, the programme has since grown to have a 24-hour kitchen, delivering meals to thousands of children with the aim to reach a million children a day by 2025.
To date, the programme has provided five million meals with parents required to pay only Sh15 for every child per day with three centres.
“I learnt of this programme early in the year while visiting some schools in Dagoretti South, I interacted with the children and during the interaction they said they want food,” says Mr Sakaja.
“As a parent I was touched. They wanted the school feeding programme to be brought back. If there is nothing in their tummy then nothing will go to their brain. Many of them, especially in the urban setting, their parents have nothing. In Nairobi, if you do not have money then you cannot eat,” he adds.
He says that he wants to mobilise other MPs in the city to embrace the programme and have at least 10 sub-counties in Nairobi having rolled the same before the end of the year.
He says it costs Ms Njiru between Sh22 and Sh25 a meal and they get support from well-wishers to subsidise the gap where one of their partners has a feeding programme in India feeding two million children a day.
And as such, he is looking at working together with Ms Njiru to expand the programme to other parts of Nairobi like Embakasi West where a kitchen is being put up in Umoja One for the same with the aim to spread it to all the 17 sub-counties in Nairobi.
“The programme has transformed the lives of the children. They are given food weighing 650 grams comprising of proteins and carbohydrates. Those who cannot finish carry home to share with their family,” he says.
This has been able to increase the number of children going to school as well as improve discipline among the children because a hungry child is an angry child, said Mr Sakaja.
“I am pushing to have it as a priority where the government must have an allocation towards the programme in the coming financial year’s budget.”
The programme uses Tap2East technology, developed by a local software company, Terra Software. Tap2Eat is a wristband linked to a virtual wallet that parents top up using their smartphones.
The children then wear the wristbands which will then be scanned to allow the child to eat.
“You pay on M-Pesa and it automatically updates the watch. Then the watch will be scanned and it will show you have paid and the balance remaining.”
Kenya rolled a school feeding programme, Home Grown School Meals Programme, in 2009 in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) with children in primary school provided with midday meal.
The programme had hit 1.9 million children before it came to an end in 2019 when WFP withdrew to leave the government to proceed with the programme.
In May 2018, the government rolled out the National Schools Meals and Nutrition Strategy after the exit of WFP, but failure to allocate the programme a budget saw it die a natural death.
The programme required a funding of Sh3.4 billion every year but the government’s plan was to allocate it only Sh2.4 billion.
Parents were then asked to make a financial contribution to keep the school lunch programme going, with poverty rife and no source of income from the parents, nothing came forth.
The feeding programme came to an end at the the end of the first term of 2019 when holdover from earlier WFP allocations ran out.