School meal programs have a significant role to play in supporting students' resilience and performance. However, having weak programs has caused an increase of dropping out rates in Tunisia.
Tunisian Minister of Education, Hatem Ben Salem, revealed new reasons dropouts in Tunisia. He said that one of the main reasons is the lack of school meal services in rural schools where students spend a full day in educational institutions because of the long-distance separating the schools from their residences. In addition to transportation problems, pupils in rural areas face difficulties in accessing the nutrition services that schools are supposed to provide as part of the functions of the School Services Directorate, which was established by government order in May 2016 to improve pupils' meals and stay conditions.
Ben Salem has previously announced that the Ministry intends to raise the budget of school meal programs from 24 million Tunisian dinars ($8.5 million) in 2017 to 70 million Tunisian dinars (about $25 million) in 2018, in favour of 400.000 students, in various regions of the Tunisian Republic. Such a raise contributed to focussing more on nutrition in schools.
He pointed out that one of the reasons for dropping out of school is the absence of school restaurants in a number of schools within several regions. In the same context, the minister did not deny the disturbance in new school restaurants as a result of the lack of workers and cooks. He stressed the government's commitment to overcome the shortage of cooks and reactivate school meal programs as a pillar of the ongoing school reform.
What the authorities are talking about is far from reality, according to teacher Sami Al-Saidi, who spent more than 15 years teaching in rural schools in the northwest of Tunisia. He told The New Arab that school meal conditions are poor, stressing that the meals provided do not rise to the level of food needed by a young child to resist the harsh weather.
Al-Saidi added that most of the schools where he worked provide cold meals in the form of sandwiches of bread and canned "harrisa" (hot pepper paste) and sardines or cheese and sometimes jam and butter. He suggested that a single meal does not provide the basic needs of a student who is supposed to walk for kilometres to reach the school and then spend more than seven hours in class.
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He added: "In the past, schools used to provide hot meals that provide students with more energy, especially in cold weather", calling on the authorities to re-assess the school meal programs to protect students from dropping out of school and maintain their health. The teacher also pointed out that those inappropriate meals provided will not help students to focus and benefit from the lessons provided, considering that students in rural areas pay a heavy price for poor transport and support programs, including school meal, which forces them to drop out of school at an early age.
Every year, Tunisia records more than 100.000 dropping out cases among school pupils. The phenomenon affects males in the first place, costing the state 1135 million Tunisian dinars, which represents 20 per cent of the budget of the Ministry of Education. However, the Ministry of Education says that the newly created school services bureau is responsible for improving the quality of food provided to pupils. It will also work to enhance the experience and spread it to different parts of Tunisia, especially in rural areas where school dropout rates are more significant.
The Ministry also entrusted the school services bureau with the task of disposing of the budget allocated for school meal programs, i.e. purchasing required alimentary for the preparation of school meals at a lower cost and better quality, in addition to attempting to halt the violations that may be recorded in some areas.
According to the school services bureau, the task of ensuring school meal is divided into two categories: one for restaurants designated for preparatory and secondary schools. 450 restaurants are serving 91.000 pupils, half of whom benefit from full board services (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and the rest receive half board services (lunch only). Restaurants in preparatory schools and secondary schools supervise the provision of food for pupils for 215 days, exerting periodic monitoring through regional committees and public health teams authorised to make unannounced visits based on an agreement between the Ministries of Health and Education.
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The second category is represented by primary schools, providing 262.000 pupils with school meal services, while the Ministry is working to increase this number to cover 500.000 pupils to eliminate the causes of early school drop-outs.
By a government order issued in May 2016, the mission of the school services bureau consists of supervising and supporting the functioning of restaurants and school dormitories, in addition to ensuring the pupils' stay in these facilities. The bureau also supports school transport, develops school life, examines the possibilities of expanding the network of primary schools benefiting from restaurants and submits proposals to the supervisory authority, i.e. the Ministry of Education.
The school services bureau is also entrusted with the task of maintaining school facilities, providing food services and accommodation in school dormitories following quality standards, as well as providing schoolchildren staying in school dormitories with the necessary psychological and social support