A local non-profit dedicated to addressing childhood hunger in the Cayman Islands welcomed the PACT government’s plan to provide free school meals to all public school students.
“For too long this has been overlooked. Poor health and malnutrition have to be considered and incorporated into the efforts to improve our educational system,” said Stacey VanDevelde, Founder/Chairwoman of Feed our Future. “So this is a very positive move and, in our view, an investment in our youth and country to do all we can to ensure their future.”
Established 10 years ago, Feed our Future’s core programme is to provide low-cost or free school meals to children in need.
“From our point of view this is an investment at the front end to avoid later costs not only in poor academic and learning outcomes but in their health and emotional and social well-being,” she said.
VanDevelde said the government’s proposal would allow the non-profit to concentrate on other goals beyond the basic foundation of providing food to children.
“This is the upside. We have already been doing this through our education enrichment programs so this measure will further position us to shift our focus on other enrichment opportunities for our youth that can make a more lasting impact and break cycles thereby supporting our children in being able to take advantage of the gains of our country through employment and advancement,” she said.
Saying that “What we eat is as important as having something to eat,” VanDevelde said the non-profit offers services and expertise to government and schools on how to enhance school meals, and leads programmes for children and families on subjects including cooking healthy on a budget, shopping on a budget, and wellness workshops.
“The reality is that the meal offerings in the school canteens are inconsistent. Whilst some do this well others could use some support and help,” she said.
“There are clear nutritional guidelines in this regard per the Cayman Islands Public Schools: Standards for Food Provision developed about 10 years ago by the Department of Education Services. As the details of the free school meal programme are fleshed out, these guidelines could be revisited, refreshed and enforced. This is a welcomed opportunity to address this issue also,” she said.
According to its 2019-20 annual report, the number of students supported by Feed Our Future rose from 225 before the COVID-19 pandemic to 500 last year, and as of the beginning of the 2020/21 school year, 350 students had been accepted on the school meal roster.
Under the PACT’s plan, the government would be providing free school meals for about 5,000 public school students.
Extrapolating the expenses incurred by the charity each year to serve their smaller base of clients, the cost of the government’s school meal initiative could be in the range of several million dollars per year.
Public school canteens are not managed by a central government entity or a single contractor. Some are run by the individual school’s Parent Teacher Association.
The details of the free school meal programme have not been laid out, for example, if funds will be given to the existing group of canteen managers and contractors, if a new contract(s) will be awarded for school cafeterias, if a new government unit will be created, etc.
When concluding parliamentary debate on the government’s Strategic Policy Statement, Premier Wayne Panton said, “It is a fact that the true situation of hunger in Cayman only came to light during the COVID-19 lockdown, when those children on the NAU and charity lists had no access to school meals. This must change. We cannot have our children trying to learn on empty stomachs.”
VanDevelde said the announcement of the free school meal programme came as a pleasant surprise to Feed our Future leaders.
“We were not involved directly with the discussion leading to this decision made by the PACT government though we have raised this as a recommendation with specific members of the now PACT government and previous governments. We are glad that our pleas have finally been heard,” she said.