On school gardens and children’s nutrition

Malnutrition continues to be high among public school children here.  I/NGOs are doing their part to address this. One is support to the various DepEd programs such as school gardens.  (Some such as my former employer have extended support to children’s families by helping finance or provide for home vegetable gardens.)  And now there was report that for this school year in select schools DepEd together with DSWD launched a feeding program.  The program is not new.  For DSWD, it appears that feeding the children enrolled in it’s day care center is a regular feature in it’s day care program.  However, it has been confusing (irritating as well) to hear  representatives of DepEd and DSWD report year after year that side by side with their programs, malnutrition remains high.  In other words, they’re saying the programs did not make a significant dent on school children’s nutrition.

I’ve been involved in these programs with a former employer mostly as a researcher or evaluator.  The following are reasons the school garden program has fallen short of intentions:

1.  Schools that need the program most do not implement it.  There are quite a few reasons for this but the most critical one is that school administrators, meaning the school principal or OIC, do not value the program to support it’s implementation.  They view children nutrition as the sole responsibility of parents.  These administrators do not or cannot perceive the potential of the vacant plots around them.  Their interests simply do not lie in gardening or planting.

2.  A variation of this school principal bias is, as I’ve seen in a school I’ve visited for evaluation, instead of a school garden, a vacant plot of land owned by the school was turned into a farm (at the time I went ears of corn ready to be harvested were swaying under the sun) for business purposes.  Farming is outsourced to volunteer parents.  The school then sell the produce, the money it receives allocated to maintenance of classrooms including payment for utilities.  Similarly, in another school, tree nurseries were planted.  (There’s an article on this blog about the difficulties schools face in their day-to-day operation, given that many do not receive their share from the districts on time and when they do the amount is scandalously pitiful — PHP1,000-3,000 per quarter!  Understandably, to add children’s nutrition to already pernicious operational problems may be the last straw that could kill administrators!)

3.  For schools that implement the program, they don’t grow the gardens to the point that it really serves the nutritional needs of their malnourished population.  In comparison, gardens along the highways selling ornamental plants are better cared for.  When I ask schools to show me their gardens, I’m frequently disappointed at the sight.  I wanted to tell them, is this it?  Where do you find the confidence to show this off?  But of course I don’t.  What can a teeny pot or two of a leafy vegetable do for a classroom of hungry growing up kids?  These serve more as ornamentals instead of as food.

4.  I can speak for my former employer in this: it supported school personnel training in organic farming and afterward the schools provided with starter kits or materials and continuing technical support.  For the first few months, things are rosy but at some point afterward they cite difficulties (petty ones to me) sustaining the practice until it’s totally abandoned or neglected.  The next we hear they’re into another project or program, a different name but with the same end-goals.  The next we hear they’re into another and so forth.  In the end, there’s nothing to show for.  The DepEd has been criticized for it’s pilot project mindset, marked by administrators and personnel trained to imbibe a very short attention span hence lack the will to see things through to the end.

The above enumerations pertain to supply side issues.  The  issue on the demand side has to do with parents.  Where schools implement the program and parents are enjoined through the PTA to participate only five out of, say, 50 parents whose children are malnourished will respond with appropriate and sustained enthusiasm.  These parents tell me they’re very busy with putting food on the day’s table.  When you’re told that, there’s nothing more you can say or offer.  It’s a dead end reasoning.  But I discovered that there’s more behind their “official” reason.  Observing PTA meetings, I sensed undercurrents in the interactions among parents and between teachers and parents. Elected parent-officers talk down on member-parents.  Member-parents vigorously whisper among themselves — who does s/he think s/he is?  S/he’s just… (in essence, one of us)!  They nod or stay silent to whatever the officers tell them.  When they don’t “participate”, meaning, they don’t respond to the question or provide suggestions when asked, all the more that the officers talk down on them or dictate to them.  This in turn sends member-parents into another flurry of furtive whisperings, and so on and so forth.  Similarly, teachers talk down on the parents, officers and not. The parents, having completed only a few grades in primary school, bow to everything the teachers say. In the localities, teachers are gods.  At least what’s shown them.  After the meeting, however, far from the meeting room, making their way out of the school, parents whisper about how improbable the teachers’ statements or suggestions were. As you can see, it’s a very frustrating interaction with no real solution arrived at.  But that’s a side of “local politics” for you. (Locals, Filipinos in general, need to put serious work on honing their communication and negotiation skills.  They shouldn’t be afraid of communicating honestly (because honesty doesn’t have to be delivered disrespectfully), be they the bearer of the message or the recipient of it, regardless of their social standing in the community.)

The school child is oblivious to all of these.  Or, if s/he is aware, there is little that s/he could do.  At least that’s what the system says.  In the schools are the so-called PGO (Pupil Government Organization) and SSG (Supreme Student Government). Discussions with these groups show that school administrators and personnel in essence run the organizations, the voices behind, in effect directing these to conform to status quo.  Many PGOs are relegated to planting trees, being foot soldiers of school administrators and personnel in classroom and campus discipline (e.g. monitoring for transgressions to school policies and collecting fines), and maintaining cleanliness in the school grounds.  Nonetheless, especially the older children, they are aware of the real power of these organizations, but as with their parents they were afraid to speak their minds. The way I see it, the problem lies not on these children, because by nature they are communicative, but the culture.

So all of these, directly and indirectly, bear on the success of school based programs, in this case, school gardens, that aim to alleviate children’s lives, specifically their health and nutrition.  As what evaluations of development programs reveal, outcomes and impacts are the result of a combination of factors which often had not been foreseen or included in the programs’ M&E design.

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