Battle to nourish young minds
One school proves how 20 baht per head subsidy is enough to provide a nutritious meal at school
The Education Ministry has announced it will take tough action against schools caught misusing funds for school lunches after the scandal came to light last year.
Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan has also told the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) to look into the 20 baht per head subsidy, which has not been changed for the past five years.
"If the investigation by Obec finds that anyone has been involved in misusing the funds, then they will face both criminal and civil action," Mr Nataphol told the Bangkok Post.
However, though some school executives were found last year to have misused the school lunch fund, Obec named Wat Koosanamchan School in Samut Songkhram's Muang district as a role model in terms of effective management of the fund.
"We strongly believe that students should come to school with a hunger to learn, not a hunger for food," director of Wat Koosanamchan School, Ekalak Khaonuan, said.
Despite holding the highest post at school, Mr Ekalak wakes up at dawn every day to pick up fresh meat, vegetables and other ingredients for lunch at his school. He has made this routine a priority since 2014.
"I want to ensure that every child eats fresh food and has a full stomach in school every day," he said.
Mr Ekalak said school lunch is planned on a weekly basis, and teachers who have enough knowledge about nutrition are responsible for coming up with the menu. However, before the menu is decided upon, each student is given a chance to pick the dishes they like.
"We ensure that every dish on the lunch menu has all five essential nutrients and tastes good despite us having a limited budget," the school director added.
Wat Koosanamchan School has 107 students from kindergarten to elementary level and only receives a 20 baht subsidy from government per child under its free-lunch programme.
"Though the 20 baht per head provided to schools may not be much, it is enough to provide healthy meals if there's no corruption," Mr Ekalak said, adding some of the ingredients used in the lunches are also grown by the students in school.
"With limited budget, we try to be as self-sufficient as possible. A few years ago, we launched a school farming project in line with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great's Sufficiency Economy Philosophy," he said.
Under the project, space has been allocated for students to work on small-scale mixed farms based on the late King's concept of sustainable farming.
Students get to dig small ponds to raise fish, and also work on raising laying hens, growing mushrooms and vegetables. And all this is done free of chemicals.
"All the farm produce that the students work on are used in our school lunch. This project doesn't just teach the children to be self-sufficient, but also teaches them to be more responsible and have the volunteering mindset," he said.
Thanks to Mr Ekalak's efforts, the school was granted an award by Obec for its efficient management of the school-lunch budget.
Sadly, other students are not as lucky as their peers at Wat Koosanamchan School.
Many schools across the country have been accused of not using the state subsidy for meals efficiently, and either misusing or siphoning off the rest.
Last year, a primary school in Surat Thani was exposed for feeding students just noodles and fish sauce, while a school in Nakhon Si Thammarat province was caught serving students just rice, soup made from vegetable scraps and watermelon.
In Nakhon Ratchasima alone, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) discovered that at least four state-run schools in the province were providing substandard lunches to their students.
The NACC said that upon investigation, it found that only part of the allocated funding was being used for meals at these schools and that the management could not explain where the rest of the money had gone.
Some schools insisted the money was not embezzled and that the remaining funds had been used on extra-curricular activities such as sports.
NACC also found that in some cases, the number of students put down for school lunch was higher than the number of students actually enrolled in the school, suggesting the number of students was fabricated so schools could receive more funding.
Amnat Wichayanuwat, Obec secretary-general, told the Bangkok Post that stealing students' lunch money is unacceptable because not only does it mean the culprits are siphoning off money meant for public causes, but they are also putting at risk "the lives of the future generation".
He also pointed out that poor nutrition, especially among children, can have a lifelong negative impact on growth and development.
"Poor diets affect them both physically and emotionally," he said.
"This includes the development of organs, the immune system, as well as the ability to perform daily activities. Intellectually, inadequate nutritional intake leads to poor brain function, increased susceptibility to diseases, and slow learning."
To tackle the problem, Obec has recently come up with a five-point strategy to ensure that school lunches nationwide are of good quality and has created a working team to analyse the budget allocation.
Under the five-point strategy, schools are required to manage the school lunch funding, and closely follow Obec's guidelines.
They must also provide meals that adhere to food safety standards, as well as consider building organic farms and coordinating with local communities to produce organic products.