In Georgia, hunger stalks children at school

Journalist: Mariam Jachvadze, , Illustrator: Tina Chertova

“The menu should be as varied as possible. Eat about four or five times a day, at the same time preferably. The daily menu should include dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Meat should be grilled. Limit sugar, sweets, and carbonated water as much as possible. It's not recommended to eat large amounts of spicy food, mayonnaise, or ketchup...”

Science teacher Vepkhia Mania is explaining the connection between nutrition and health to sixth graders at a school in a village in Georgia’s western Zugdidi region. He is trying to make children think about healthy eating and its impact on their health, using illustrations of breakfast, sweets, main dish for dinner, and evening fruit. For homework, he asks them to prepare a presentation about their daily nutrition for the next lesson.

"The next lesson, I found out that more than half of the class eats meat only on holidays. At home, they mostly eat carbohydrates, such as bread, foxtail millet, pasta, and potatoes. I felt so awkward that I stopped the lesson,” he recalls.

A balanced diet is an important prerequisite for physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive development, according to the World Health Organization. A 2021 study of school children in Georgia by the Center for Counseling and Training (CTC) found that 77 percent of the children interviewed said they are always (35%) or sometimes (42%) hungry when they come to school. The CTC reports that 11 percent of pupils in Georgian public schools (62,500) live below the poverty line. According to international studies and national assessments, the socio economic status of their families determines the students’ achievements in Georgia.

"I just sent my student to the doctor. He told me he was feeling cold, and I was afraid he had a fever. The doctor examined him, but couldn’t identify the problem,” recalls Tea Talakhadze, a Georgian language and literature teacher at Kharagauli Public School N2. 

I asked him, did you have breakfast? He answered ‘no, I didn’t.’  I called his grandmother immediately, as his parents are abroad for work, and this was not the first case it happened to him.”

Tea has made it a habit to ask the children about their breakfast every morning. It is especially hard to hold the lesson at the end of the school day, because the children’s heads and stomachs already hurt and they can no longer listen.

"I sometimes buy one hot loaf of bread for several students to share,” she says.

Tekla Chumburidze is a 12th-grade student at the Tbilisi Public School N24. She had to attend the 10th and 11th grades online due to the pandemic. Before COVID closed the school, there was a cafeteria for the children, where bean pies (lobiani), sweet buns, and hotdogs were on display along a long gray counter. This place used to be crowded with children during their long breaks, which lasted 10 minutes. Everyone rushed to be quick and grab something. You had to be lucky to be fed. Tekla and her friends usually bought pretzels, which cost 1 GEL.

"Do you have an extra 20 tetris? Can you give me 1 GEL? We often collected 1.5 GEL for lobiani with these 20-20 tetris. We have even shared a burger in bites... My friend used to ask me to let her have a bite,” Tekla recalls.

Promises not policy

While the Georgian government sponsors a free food program for children aged 3-5 who attend public kindergarten, it does not provide free school meals to public school students. For almost two years, the government has been saying they are working on this issue—although there is little evidence of any changes in policy. 

In 2021, an inter-departmental working group was created by the Prime Minister. It united the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Georgia; the Ministry of Internally Displaced People from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs; the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia; the National Food Agency; and the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia.

In August, the education ministry and the United Nations Children’s Fund signed a memorandum outlining concrete steps to start a food school meals program at public schools. And, the ministry announced it would present its plan for free meals at schools in December. The presentation did not take place, however, and neither the education ministry nor the health ministry responded to numerous interview requests. 

While Education Minister Mikheil Chkhenkeli has repeatedly stated that an inter-departmental group is actively working on the concept of free school meals and that relevant parliament committees will be actively involved in this process, the ministry did not include the free school meals program in the 2020-2030 national strategy.

Providing free meals at school is not a new concept for Georgia. The civil movement Voice, which started advocating for free meals in schools in 2021, says the 1921 Georgian Constitution enshrined meals for vulnerable children as part of the education process. The practice dates back to the early 20th century for other countries as well, including Great Britain. Today, students in more than 160 countries receive free school meals. In some areas, school meals are already a human right. In Brazil and Mexico, it is a part of the social security system (Civil Movement Voice, 2022).

Specialists note there are several reasons why Georgia is struggling to offer free school meals—in particular the high cost and complicated logistics of providing food to all public schools. 

"The [working group] process was too protracted, and the involvement of each agency was very low. The Ministry of Economy did not attend the meeting, stating that we had to decide what and how to feed at first, and then they would come. The Ministry of Finance said that if we wanted the state to finance all of this, they would have to raise taxes,” notes Tako Ugulava, a health and nutrition specialist of the United Nations Children's Fund and a member and consultant of the working group. 

At first, we were asked questions like: ‘how many times will the menu change in a week?’ However, the frame was not clear yet. The process showed that we should start by defining the first goal – why are we doing this?!

"Our goal is to eliminate social inequality and encourage equal access to education. We know that when children do not have a balanced diet, their cognitive, physical, and psycho-emotional development is hindered. They cannot get an education, and therefore they remain in poverty. The solution in social policy is the same: to live a normal life if you live in poverty, on the one hand, and to get quality education, on the other. The free school meals program serves these two goals," says Revaz Apkhazava, an education specialist and one of the authors of the policy document The Need and Prospects for Establishing a School Nutrition system in Georgia.” 

The Voice conducted a study "Teachers in a Hungry Classroom," which examined students' hunger and its impact on the learning process from the perspective of teachers.

Even if just one child is hungry, it still affects the atmosphere of the whole class, the study found. The teacher and the students know who can go to the buffet and buy food during the break, whom you can ask to bring lobiani, and who has brought food from home. If a student feels sick, most will lie and say they have eaten if asked as they are usually too ashamed to admit they are hungry. 

Teachers, more than others, feel the tense atmosphere caused by hunger and social problems in the classroom. Despite the severity of the problem, teachers avoid talking about it in public. Out of the ten teachers who agreed to be interviewed, six requested anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs. 

"We can agree with the elementary school students that if they are hungry, they should tell us. But in high school, they can't tell us because they are ashamed. Even if I ask them to eat breakfast before they come to school, I still know who can afford it and who can’t. It puts me in an awkward position," says Tea Talakhadze, a teacher at N2 public school in Kharagauli. 

"Eleven out of 23 students are socially vulnerable in my class. One time, I found crushed ramen soup under a desk. My student had eaten it dry. Then I remembered who was sitting at that desk. We are talking about a girl from the 5th grade! She told me that they rarely had food at home, she was ashamed about it and didn’t want me to tell anyone. Some of them bring food from home, but more than half of my students’ parents can’t afford it. When some of them start eating during the lunch break, I observe what the others are doing, and mostly they are reading books. They won’t even look up to see others eating," notes a public school teacher from the suburb of Tbilisi who asked to remain anonymous.

"The people are very poor in this village. Two kids in my class are socially vulnerable. One of them comes from a large family, and you can tell by how poor they are by how they dress. Many of their parents live abroad. Some children don't even want to go home after school. Or, on the contrary, they lock themselves in their rooms and don't want to come to school anymore. There is a very depressing social background. They are often financially, morally, spiritually, and physically ill," says Mariam Tsiflashvili, a mathematics teacher at Ujarma public school, a small school in Sagarejo district.

"I’ve also become ill. They once took me to the doctor, and the very first question I had to answer was if I had eaten something. ‘If not, go and eat lobiani...,” Tekla said. “I went out, but I couldn't afford to buy lobiani." 

"I’ve seen a girl collapsing from a stomach ache at school... Sometimes, when I’m at the store during a sale and remember that case, I buy a bigger pack of candies and bring them to school, carrying at least two or three candies a day," says Anna Maghradze, a 10th-grade student of Tbilisi Public School 53.

"I remember I got sick once because I hadn't eaten in the morning. The teacher gave me 2 GEL and let me go to the buffet. When I got sick the second time, the teacher didn't have any money either and asked the class if anyone had any money to help me. Then my best friend bought me a Snickers," says Anastasia Sanikidze, a 9th-grade student of Tbilisi Public School N174. 

In addition to students, teachers also have to starve at school. It is especially hard for teachers who work both shifts. Marina* (name is changed at the teacher's request) is a 5th-grade chemistry and biology teacher at one of the most diverse schools in  the Tbilisi suburb of Varketili, where more than 1000 children study in seven parallel classes. She has to leave home at 7 a.m. to make it for the first class from her home in the suburb of Gldani.

"No matter what food I take from home, I can't keep it at school because it will spoil. We don't have a refrigerator, and there is nowhere to warm it up. We are always eating dry food. The price of a small cheese pie (khachapuri) has also increased in the store, so we survive the whole day on coffee and bread. The kids are on the same page,” she says. “What kind of quality education are we talking about?! They have a terrible academic record. I teach nature to the 5th graders, and when I give them one small paragraph to read, they just can’t understand it…” 

"I think that we may be losing a generation that could solve some complex operations, and we might be left with the cheap laborers. So, I feel very strongly about the role of nutrition,"  says Vepkhia Mania, the science teacher from the Zugdidi district.

Specialist Tako Ugulava explains that the scope of the free school meals program depends on a country's goals. The composition of the food changes accordingly. 

Since over 70 percent of schoolchildren in Georgia say that they are hungry and have difficulty concentrating on their studies, the program goal should be to strengthen their abilities while at school. It should include food that will fill the children's stomachs.

"In Georgia’s case, small biscuits enriched with iron will not help. At the working meetings, we brought out the main goal: the goal of education. It also has a social goal that the children from vulnerable families will at least be able to eat at school,” she says. If we achieve this goal, students will improve their academic performance, and the number of children leaving the school system will be reduced to a minimum. All this is still a draft. We haven’t mentioned anything about agriculture and the development of local production yet."

Impact of school meal=higher attendance, better grades

The National Statistical Service of Georgia (Geostat) reports that 8,846 students stopped studying before graduation in the 2021-2022 academic year, which is 25.5 percent more than the previous year. Of those who leave school early, most opt to end their studies after 10th grade, according to the data.

Georgia has also struggled to translate successive education reform initiatives into better test scores. In the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 15-year-old Georgian students scored lower in reading, mathematics, and natural sciences than their peers in all but eight participating countries. 

"In Georgia, they talk a lot about the issue of education. We often hear people saying that nothing will help us if the quality of education does not improve. Then they add that we have incompetent teachers; that we have bad parents who cannot raise children; that the textbooks we have are bad; or that we don't have laboratories in schools,” notes Vako Natsvlishvili, a member of the Civil Movement Voice. “Have you ever heard someone say that Georgian children, including the ones in our region, lag behind their peers in terms of literacy because they are hungry?! Have you ever heard that?!

When a free school meals program was introduced in Ghana in 2005, there were three main goals: 1. Reducing hunger and malnutrition 2. Increasing and maintaining school attendance 3. Strengthening local agriculture-- they thought that the schools participating in the program would later develop their farms. Under the program, selected schools offered children a locally produced [hot] meal once a day. The results were measured in two stages: October-December 2015, and 2018-2019, with minor updates in 2020. The study found that schools that offered free meals to children had more students enrolled that year. The rate of attendance of the rest of the students improved significantly, which was later reflected in their better academic performance. The study also revealed that the health status of children had improved in these schools.

The arithmetic of school meals

The Ministry of Education has not published the estimated cost of a country-wide free meal program for public schools. The Voice movement has calculated that a meal per student, based on the menu prepared by the United Nations Children's Fund for Georgian schools, will cost 1.66 GEL, or 266 GEL per year. For all public school students, food alone would cost the budget 144.8 million GEL--198 million GEL per year including food transportation, storage, preparation, and other supporting processes.

The CTC estimates the cost at an estimated 242 GEL per student per year, or roughly $91—compared to $42 in low-income countries, $124 in middle-income countries, and $242 in developed economies.

The interdepartmental working group spent more than a year discussing a model to decide who can eat for free, what should be on the menu and what should the government provide schools.

Initially, the group considered the same model for all public schools in Georgia. A study of schools’ infrastructure found that 70 percent of public schools lack the space and conditions to prepare food. In the end, it was decided that each region of the country should have its own model. 

"We imagined a high mountain village school in Khulo district, Adjara, as an example, where there are 20 students in total. Only five out of these 20 are at the elementary level. In this case, everyone should join the program. That's why we said that in the first stage, we should consider the students from 1st to 4th grade inclusive + schools with a small contingent in full. It will show the difficulties that exist," explains Tako Ugulava, the specialist from the United Nations Children's Fund. 

As for the forms of food delivery in schools, she says that the working group leans toward the distribution of food containers (lunch boxes), containing sandwiches, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and a small bottle of water in special packaging.

There are three main practices internationally: preparing food at school, sending prepared food to school and providing schools with fortified cookies enriched with vitamins and minerals and milk for the children.

"Considering the reality of our country, perhaps a synthesis of these three models will be necessary. There are schools where it will be difficult to bring a lunch box. Some schools are cut off from the regional center in the winter so transportation/delivery will be impossible. It would be better if we bring fortified cookies and milk to such schools. And in those where there is appropriate infrastructure, hot food should be prepared on the spot," says Vako Natsvlishvili, the member of the Civil Movement Voice.

The Voice supports a universal model of free meals for children to ensure all children can eat.

"In any social protection program, targeted programs have more administrative costs. This must be taken into account when calculating the budget," he says. 

Rezo Apkhazava also thinks that the free school meal program should be for all students. He also supports a payment card system: all children at school have a card to buy meals. The state pays for qualifying students, and the parents pay for the rest.

"You cannot just convert any program model directly to Georgia. There are many parts in the system that effectively determine its content,” he says, noting the high percent of families living in poverty in the capital Tbilisi and the well-documented shortcomings to the government’s system of determining which families qualify for assistance. 

To overcome the apparent lack of political will—and public interest—in free school meals, Voice decided to engage pupils in the organization’s advocacy campaign. Eight students from Tbilisi public schools are now working on a play based on the students' personal experiences of hunger, under the mentorship of poet and playwright Alex Chighvinadze.

"At first you think that it's just your problem, and your mother is the only one who can't afford to give you five GEL a day. Then you grow up and realize that you aren’t alone. When we started working on the characters for the play, at first, we were like: ‘let’s say he doesn’t have a mother’, or ‘her mother works in a bakery’, or ‘he’s very poor’... But then we started thinking more and realized that we didn't need to invent anything. We could just tell the real stories of ourselves and our friends. That’s how we found out that there are children who are hungry at school, even if they have both mother and father and both of them are employed," says Tekla Chumburidze, a 12th-grader at Tbilisi Public School 24.

Without a clear strategy for a free school meals program—or even a tentative launch date, Vako Natsvlishvili urges the government to consider the cost of doing nothing.

"If the country can't afford to feed the children, what can it afford at all? What is it that it can provide? Is it possible to have a public administration? Is there a way to rehabilitate the streets? Is there a chance to retrain teachers,” he asks.

If there is no way to solve this fundamental problem, then what is it that the government CAN do?

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