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File: Cooks prepare box lunches for the School Feeding Programme at the National School Dietary Services Limited at the School Feeding Catering Centre in Chaguanas in 2018.

SHALIZA HASSANALI

By this week, a note will go to Cabinet to determine if students of the National Schools Dietary Services (NSDS) should be provided with daily box lunches or distribute food cards for parents of these students, as fears have been expressed that preparation and distribution of the meals by the NSDS could lead to further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the Government decides to go the route of the food cards, it means approximately 1,500 caterers, farmers, workers and suppliers whose livelihoods depend on the NSDS, as known as the School Feeding Programme (SFP) will be further limbo.

Since the closure of all schools in March, these four categories of workers have been thrown on the breadline with nothing to fall back on.

Last month, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly pledged to provide 500 box lunches to all MPS in Trinidad for children in the SFP, as they continued their home-based learning.

But days later, Gadsby-Dolly in response to a WhatsApp question by Guardian Media as to when the lunches will begin distribution said a “decision was made to go through the Ministry of Social Development to provide food support. That is being finalised by the Minister.”

Social Development and Family Services Minister Donna Cox in a brief interview with Guardian Media on Friday said Gadsby-Dolly had asked “that we look at a way to assist the parents in school feeding but that has to be approved by Cabinet.”

Cox said she was in the process of writing a note which would be submitted to Cabinet shortly.

“We have to find out if it could be done. Remember we have to check on money and everything so it is social development would have to do the top up. And now we have to try and get the funds.”

By this week, Cox said Government would have a definite word on this matter.

If Government opts to top up the food cards, Cox said her ministry would need Cabinet approval for the funds.

“Remember with this COVID time…it may be easier to do top ups to assist the parents. It would be less risky because we don’t know how these people preparing the food. Persons have to come out and cook …to gather,” Cox said.

During the lockdown, the Government issued 50 food support cards to each MP for distribution to families of children who are registered for the SFP under the remit of the Education Ministry.

The first batch of cards, distributed in March, had a value of $1,020 while the cards given out thereafter was topped up in the sum of $1,530 for three months.

A source at the Education Ministry said while Government has been trying to contain the virus from spreading, countries such as America which has been battling with thousands of COVID-19 deaths have not stopped its school meals.

“Their nutrition experts have articulated that the short-term health effects of missed meals include fatigue and reduce immune response, which increase the risk of contracting communicable disease,” the source said.

The SFP provides employment for 68 suppliers, over 200 direct farmers, 800 single parents and 75 caterers.

The meals are prepared using locally grown food.

“If the Government goes the route of topping up the food cards then approximately 1,500 people involved in the programme will be further impacted. For six months now these workers and contractors have been without jobs…struggling to make ends meet as a result of the pandemic,” the source said.

Many of the caterers, unable to cope, have already gone out of business.

In the last budget the SFP was allocated $200 million.

Daily 79,000 pre-school, primary and secondary students across the country were provided with breakfast and lunch meals.

The meals were delivered to 800 schools.

CEO of the NSDS Stacy Barran said her organisation has submitted a proposal to the ministry regarding the protocols its employees should follow in light of the pandemic.

Having just completed a retraining exercise for all NSDS employees, Barran said “we have done restructuring in the facilities as well. For the SEA exam we did a little bit of training which was quite successful. So, we look forward to the start of the programme. We stand ready, trained and have outlined our protocols according to the World Health Organisation guidelines.”

One south based caterer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said since the abrupt shutdown he has incurred $500,000 in losses while others have closed its doors.

The caterer supplied 1,350 students with daily meals utilising 17 staff members-all single parents.

He said some of his workers who applied for the rental assistance and salary relief grants after being laid off are still awaiting their cheques.

If the programme does not resume, he said a lot of caterers will go bankrupt.

“Closing your business is just the beginning of your hardships because you still have your loans to pay and to settle bills with your suppliers. It’s not even feasible to do anything private. The little savings I had is basically done. I am facing deep financial trouble and an uncertain future.”