OPINION: Appraising Osun’s O-Meals programme

Osun Elementary School Feeding-2When the history of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic is finally written, one man, a public administrator of uncanny acumen, will tower highly on the pages of that account. He will be so specially recognised not on account of his volubility or seeming Spartan lifestyle. Reasonably, Governor Rauf Aregbesola will attract a huge focus in that chronicle because of his sterling performance and consistent delivery of good governance in Osun State, a once economically drab, socially sick, and politically explosive landlocked state.

While not neglecting the evident changes taking place in other sectors of the state since the Aregbesola administration began in 2010, I must confess that I have been more dispassionately concerned with what happens in the education sector of the state. From the reforms, the innovative initiatives, to the hefty sum being sunk in the public education system of Osun, there can be no doubt that the interest of the Aregbesola government in the advancement of education as a vital element of enduring human and physical development is not superficial.

Specifically, the vastly improved Home-Grown School Feeding Programme, famously regarded as Osun Elementary School Feeding and Health Programme (O-MEALS) is one of the areas in the education sector of the state that the incandescent light of good governance has been determinedly beamed. The success of this programme brings to mind the indisputable fact that the sector-wide development being witnessed in Osun is a product of the robust resourcefulness, rugged will, uncommon prudence, and practicable vision of the Aregbesola administration. O-MEALS has been sustained for two years. It is a stirring testimony to the inspiring ability of the administration to provide invaluably enduring programme.

This free school-feeding programme covers some 500,000 pupils enrolled in grades one to four of all government-owned elementary schools. It is firmly founded on the objectives of alleviating hunger and malnutrition among school children; addressing specific micronutrient deficiencies in school-age children for better school performance; motivating parents to enrol their children in school and have them attend regularly; and stimulating job creation, local goods production and to boost local farmers’ incomes.

On every school day, these pupils are fed with highly nutritious meals made up of yam with fish stew and orange; rice and beans with chicken; beans porridge and bread with whole egg and banana; and cocoyam porridge with vegetable soup and beef, with a slice of pawpaw. This initiative, as reports indicate, has seen to the gainful empowerment of over 3000 women who serve as food vendors in all the schools across Osun. The disbursement of about N3 billion annually by the state government to sustain the programme is itself a marker of the power of vision and what only a responsible government can do.

The O-MEALS programme is a resoundingly well-restructured idea. And this is no frivolous claim. This assertion can be substantiated by looking at the quality of international supports and acclaims the programme has engendered, its implications on the education of children in the state, and the economic spinoffs. All of these prove that the programme is not a misbegotten idea.

With respect to genetic predisposition to intelligence, good nutrition plays an immeasurable role in cognitive development of children. Studies have shown that nutrient deficiency in children often affects the development of their brain, the engine room of the human body.  Children who are deficient in nutrients and are poorly fed will not only be sickly and look terrifyingly gaunt; they will equally have weaker brain power coupled with a demeaning lack of confidence. In class, they will do everything but give meaningful attention to learning. They will listen to teachers desultorily. Rather than remember the salient thrusts of their lessons, they have the rumbling worms in their stomachs to remind them of the pang of hunger.

This is the hell from which the Aregbesola administration has rescued the school children. With the nutritious meals, provision of modern learning facilities, conducive learning atmosphere, and qualified teachers, there can be no doubt that sound and round education is the lot of these children. The children now look healthier, more robust, and more confident. Their brains are being energised for effective performance on a daily basis. It now matters little, if any at all, that these children attend public schools.

The government in Osun understands that nutrients are quite critical for optimal brain development, hence its unwavering commitment to the free-feeding initiative and uncompromising provision of functional education. Those who steer the ship of governance in Osun understand that it is with well-fed, well-groomed, well-bred, and well-educated minds that society attains great heights in development.

As a full package, the O-MEALS programme has positive impact on the economy and agricultural sector of Osun. Cocoyam farming (aptly tagged ‘Cocoyam Rebirth Farming’) has taken a new dimension and many hands are already being gainfully engaged in that area. Cocoyam, especially the pink species, is said to have higher nutritional value than yam. Its inclusion in the menu of the school meal is a sensible decision.

Similarly, poultry, livestock and catfish farming now thrives in the state, improving the quality of life of farmers and reinflating the domestic economy of Osun. It can be safely concluded that the quest of Osun for economic development benefits richly from the active involvement of its people. They not only benefit from government’s programmes, they also play important roles in their execution. That is evidence that people-oriented government is what subsists in Osun in the last three years.

It is equally noteworthy that the restructured O-MEALS initiative under the watch of Aregbesola has attracted international attention. The international acclaims and backing from organisations like the Partnership for Child Development (PCD) UK, the World Bank, and the World Food Programme are strong proofs that out there in Osun is a responsive and responsible government. Given that the Osun State government has by action shown it is responsible, serious and prudent in the management of resources, it will be good judgement on the part of these international organisations to further support and help to expand the coverage of the programme to include both Middle and High School students. This will make for a complete programme.

This is a programme that will do all of Nigerian children good – not only those in Osun. It is, therefore, a welcome development that the federal government has found the need to copy this programme and make it an essential part of the Universal Basic Education programme. It is even more encouraging that roundtable discussions are being organised on how to get the programme going in all the states of the federation.

Nigeria needs the kind of revolution that has reshaped for good the public education system in Osun. Let those in charge rouse themselves to action, demonstrating the right will, translating vision into reality, and providing good governance through prudence and creativity – all of which are the hallmarks of the Aregbesola administration. They should know, as Confucius enlightens, that ‘[n]o nation goes bankrupt educating its people’. Every naira spent to make the Home-Grown School Feeding programme work would be worth it.

 Oladeji writes from Ede, Osun State.