What’s on the menu this year?

On a coal stove, a huge pot of soup is slowly simmering away. The steam rising condensates into a chilly April morning as the shouts and screams of children during first break echoes across the school grounds. It is April 1958 and the newly-formed Peninsula School Feeding Association first school meal of soup and a thick slice of bread will be served to the queue of hundreds hungry youngsters.

When the South African government of the day discontinued its school feeding programme in the Cape Peninsula in 1958, various organisations such the Rotary club of Paarden Island (now Table Bay), Shawco, Institute of Race Relations and Union of Jewish Women as well as concerned citizens stepped in. Inundated with calls from schools where pupils were fainting of hunger, something had to be done. A public meeting was called in March 1958 and the Peninsula School Feeding Association (PSFA) was formed a week later.

At first, the group fed over 8 000 children each day and a few months later, over 40 000 children were fed daily. On the menu were bread and a nourishing homemade soup “with meat, vegetables and everything” costing about 1c per child. If no fresh vegetables or meat could be provided for soup, a soup powder was used and later, when the school feeding crisis spread through the Cape province, soup powder was sent by railway to far-flung schools in Ceres and Robertson and by boat as far north as Port Nolloth. When the soup powder price increased, PSFA even considered making it themselves but clever negotiations to reduce the price prevented this extreme measure. As a further means to reduce costs, schools were issued with vegetable seeds to establish their own vegetable gardens and kids contributed what they can, often vegetables or a piece of wood or coal for the stoves.

Whale meat from Donkergat Whaling Station in Saldanha was added to the soup of 10 000 children in the Athlone area. It was found that the tinned whale has more protein (27%) and was more nutritious than beef bones which have a protein content of 18%. In addition, keeping the beef bones fresh was an issue. During cooking the meat broke up so each child had some in their serving of soup.

Ingredients used for soup in the 1960’s included oatmeal, pea and lentil chips, pearl barley and haricot beans, but soya products such as Somos were tested as alternative protein sources for the soup.

Cheese and skim milk were considered to increase the protein content of the menu, so negotiations for price reductions were entered into with the Dairy Board in 1969. Ironically, between January 1968 and February 1969, the government discarded 744 000 liters of skim milk in Cape Town, Bloemfontein and the then Transvaal. To add further insult to injury, the price of skim milk doubled in 1972. (In the 2016 to 2018 tender period 200ml sachets full-cream milk were reintroduced in the NSNP school menu.)

The menu of soup and bread continued from 1958 throughout the decades. During some years, jam or peanut butter was added and many variations and permutations of spreads and breads happened over the years. In 1962 a ‘peanut butter campaign’ was launched to raise funds to buy peanut butter. In addition, it was decided to investigate adding another form of spread such as fat or dripping. In 1972 the dear Sister Mary Agnes added curry powder to her soup and used it as a spread. There were experiments with soynut butter and Carotino, a red palm-fruit spread high in vitamin A was tested, but these options did not last long.

Economy of use was always a factor in school menus and suppliers were included in discussions around the change of menus. Atwell Bakery supplied bread to PSFA for decades and suggested thinner bread slices to optimise the budget.

In the early 1980s, boiled eggs were introduced in the PSFA to replace milk which was excluded when the Dairy Board cut its milk subsidies in favour of rugby sponsorships. The PSFA board also considered serving fish sausage or rejected fish fingers but the cost was 8,75c per serving compared to 5,8c for an egg.
The boiling of eggs was tedious; it started at dawn and by 15:30 the last of the day’s 14 400 eggs were done. In 1995 milk was again excluded form menu due to price and substituted with Nutri-A a highly nutritious soya-based milk product.

In the 1990’s the government was considering the reintroduction of a school feeding programme, more than 30 years after abandoning it. Already having experience of over three decades, PSFA was rightly regarded as a specialist in the field of school feeding and was asked to help in the new government-sponsored school feeding programme. But was only in the early 2000’s that the original menu of bread and soup was reworked by the Departement of Health’s dietician and nutritional experts.
It was cost, waste and issues with aflatoxin residues in peanut butter that lead to bread being phased out of the menu. In addition, children became tired of eating bread and the nutritional quality of the meal needed to be improved. So bread was excluded in favour of a more nutritious cooked meal consisting of protein, starch and vegetables.

In 2006 cooked meal menus were introduced under a new tender. To complicate the logistics and ordering of ingredients, there were five possible menus. These were individually priced for schools to choose from and consisted of combinations of rice, beans, bread, samp, pap and soy.

For fifty years an important aspect of school feeding was being overlooked: the timing of school feeding. It is imperative that a child is fed before 10:00. Megan Pentz-Kluyts, registered dietetics consultant of Cape Town explains:

‘The rate of glucose metabolism in children’s brains increases from birth until 4 years of age, reaching twice that of the adults’ metabolic rate, and remains elevated until 9 – 10 years of age.[i] Regular meals to ensure a continuous glucose supply to the brain are therefore more important in children than in adults. Children who are food insecure and/or undernourished were found to have poorer cognitive functioning when they miss breakfast.[ii] In addition, they have a high prevalence of behavioural, emotional, and academic problems, and are more likely to repeat a grade.’[iii]

In order to include a practical and nutritious morning meal to the PSFA menu, a mealie meal porridge was tested at ten schools in 2008. Initially, only one 10kg bag was used to test cooking time and the number of servings, but the response was so overwhelming that children came back for second helpings.

Preparers now prepare an instant flavoured ready-mix porridge to serve before school starts. Flavours include banana, strawberry, chocolate and vanilla.

The Peninsula School Feeding Association (PSFA) menu is different from the NSNP ‘government’ menu in terms of portion size only. The NSNP schools are schools receiving their meals as part of the Western Cape government-PSFA tender, while PSFA feeds schools that fall outside the parameters of the government’s tender.

‘PSFA schools’ are fed slightly larger portions of starch and protein, but receive the same number of fruit – twice a week, the same as ‘government schools’. Fruit was only formally introduced into the menu in 2009.

Obviously, the available budget limits the menu but given an unlimited budget a leading nutritionist would want to see a variety of in-season fruit, full cream milk served every day and better quality protein to improve the nutrition of the current menu.

Apart from relieving short-term hunger, providing food at school has additional benefits. Research by the Department of Education under the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) has shown that school meals improve punctuality, school attendance, concentration as well as the general wellbeing of participating learners. A dietetic survey done by the Nutrition and Dietetics Unit of the Department of Medicine of the University of Cape Town (UCT) at Bridgetown Primary in 1997 confirms this. It was found that school feeding can alleviate short-term hunger and has a positive effect on learning capabilities as well as improving physical activity.

This prove that school feeding, through decades of changes in politics and ingredients, is still a vital element in the successful education of Western Cape’s youth. This sentiment finds a voice in PSFAs motto – you can’t teach a hungry child.

1] Nyaradi A, Li J, Hickling S, Foster J, Oddy WH. The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7(March):97. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00097.

1] Taras H. Nutrition and student performance at school. J Sch Healh. 2005;75(6):199-213. doi:JOSH25 [pii]\n10.1111/j.1746-1561.2005.00025.x [doi].

[1] Kimbro R. Breakfast for Health. Food Res Action Cent. 2014:27-30.

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