Financing School Canteens to Fight Child Malnutrition in Urban and Rural Chaco

Lucas González, Universidad Nacional de San Martín

Relevance of the Practice

How do local governments cope with demanding social needs? Do their own finances help them targeting increasing social needs in their districts? Or, do central government transfers help subnational governments provide useful services?

This section explores initiatives developed at the local level in the Province of Chaco, in northern Argentina, to cope with child malnutrition in the context of limited federal and provincial transfers as well as insufficient revenues collected locally.

As part of an ongoing research project,[1] we carried out a survey in June-July 2019 to 183 school principals in Barranqueras, Charata, Fontana, General José de San Martín, Las Breñas, Machagai, Quitilipi, and Resistencia. The interviews were conducted during the months of May and July 2019 by teams of pollsters from the Government School of the Province of Chaco. We also conducted fieldwork research to schools across the province.

Chaco is one of the poorest provinces in Argentina, with a GDP per capita less than half the national average and performance far below the national average on a whole host of social and economic indicators. According to the 2010 census, approximately 23 per cent of provincial residents live in households with unsatisfied basic needs, the third highest rate in the country.[2] The province has the highest illiteracy rates among children of 10 years of age (5.5 per cent)[3] and the lowest life expectancy at birth in the country, both among men and women (69.5 and 76.4 years, respectively).[4]

These social conditions are also reflected in available data on nutrition in the province. Research on childhood nutrition in Argentina shows that both undernutrition and overweight/obesity are present in the country, with the latter being more common, affecting about one-third of Argentine children.[5] Chaco is one of the few provinces with over 5 per cent of children aged 6-72 months who were found to be underweight in a study conducted by the Ministry of Health.[6]

One major federal program designed to address nutritional deficits is the school free meal program, known colloquially as comedores escolares (school canteens). The school meal program forms part of a larger national anti-hunger program, the Plan Nacional de Seguridad Alimentaria (Food Security National Program) which was established in 2003 in the wake of the 2001 national economic crisis. School canteens that provide a free meal or snack during the school day have a long tradition in Argentina[7] and have had varied structures and funding sources. The current program is funded jointly by the national government and the provinces.[8]

In our field research, we found that federal and provincial funds in Chaco are insufficient to cope with increasing demands for meals for children due to rising unemployment, increasing food prices due to high inflation, and soaring poverty. As a consequence, school canteens in the province have to rely on local governments and their communities to cope with the increasing demands they face.

Description of the Practice

Given levels of poverty and social exclusion in Chaco, it is not surprising that many local observers attach great importance to the province’s school free meal program. A previous provincial Minister of Education expressed the view that, given Argentina’s ongoing economic crises, the food served in schools ‘is not a complement like in other years, but instead one of the children’s principle meals or even their only meal of the day.’ One school principal pointed to the importance of the program as a source of higher quality nutrition than students would otherwise receive; in her words, there are ‘parents with few resources who don’t know how to feed their children; they buy or give them money for candies, so the milk that we give them in school becomes their most important food.’

School principals are the key actor in the implementation of the meal program. They are responsible for preparing menus, managing foodstuffs, coordinating and overseeing food preparation on site, and ensuring that food is distributed to students during each school day at snack and/or lunch time, depending on the meal regime the school is assigned by the program.

School canteens suffer from a lack of resources, both for the federal and provincial program administration and to fund sufficient food to meet student needs.[9] The lack of resources has to do with increasing prices due to inflation and more number of children attending school canteens due to the lack of food in their homes.

As a consequence of these restrictions in federal and provincial funds, local governments began to play an important role. Larger cities allocate part of their social programs to fund personnel to run canteens, especially cooks and cleaning personnel. In other cases, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas, mayors get personally involved in contacting local supermarkets and getting donations for school canteens.

Local community organizations and parents’ associations also help school canteens providing the main meals to kids in school in urban localities and rural areas in Chaco. According to our survey, in 94 per cent of the schools there is a parents’ association, and in 31 per cent of the cases, principals report that the parents’ associations are very active in helping them running the canteens.

A usual view of community participation is related to improving accountability. We found this dynamic mostly in urban areas, especially in larger cities, where parents’ associations exert pressures on school principals and members of the school board to control school finances and improve services (such as the quality of the classrooms’ infrastructure, the cleanliness of toilets, and the quality of food in canteens).

When it comes to accountability for overall performance in school, the opinion that most worries the school principals is that of the parents. In total, 167 directors reported to parents among the three most relevant actors at the time of accountability (equivalent to 92 per cent of principals), followed by students (52 per cent) and supervisors (51 per cent). Only 20 per cent believe they are concerned about the opinion of the ministry and 4 per cent, the opinion of the Court of Auditors.

In schools of these districts, the majority of students are middle class, children of professionals, who usually work as employees in the public sector.

If relation to the provision of food services, if funds from the province and the federal government do not reach in time, school directors usually ask parents to collaborate with products, such as yerba mate (a local version of tea) and sugar, or to collaborate in parents’ associations to help getting access to the products.

In schools located in the most humble neighborhoods of the City of Resistencia (capital of the province), it was possible to identify, based on observation and during interviews with the directors, their strong commitment in the administration of the school canteen and in providing quality meals to students.

But in schools far away from the main urban areas of larger cities and especially in rural areas we saw a different dynamic.

To begin with, the socioeconomic background of families is different. In smaller towns, students are usually divided in two groups: mostly middle-class students, who attend during the morning, and students from more humble families, who come to school during the afternoon.

In the smallest cities in the interior of the province and in rural areas, most of the students come from poor families, children of coastal workers, farmers, and day laborers, who do not have a fixed daily job. Many students are in a situation of social vulnerability. In some cases, school directors asserted that ‘food in the school is the only one of the day they get.’

One important feature of school canteens in these district is the level of involvement of the school directors in the provision of meals, which is usually very high. They help preparing special menus, taking into account the eating habits of students in those regions, usually very different from those in larger cities. These students really need better nutrition at schools, because many of them do not get it at home.

Another important feature is that parents’ associations are very active. They get funds through other activities, such as running a kiosk in schools. In one school, parents organized a pie sale as an activity to raise funds for repairing classrooms and help the school canteen with food, and got great results out of the participation of families. With those funds, they can cover gas expenses, and compensate for the lack of products that are not supplied by the Ministry of Social Development.

In these schools, directors highlighted the sacrifice that is carried out day by day to be able to offer meal services. In some cases, canteens have one or two people who cook. They are paid around ARP 50 per month for a 6-hour work day. This ‘salary’ is provided by the municipality, in the form of a social assistance plan.

But the most relevant dynamic we found was that instead of encouraging social accountability, community participation was manly related to guaranteeing the delivery of food in school canteens. Parents participated and got personally involved to secure a decent meal a day for their kids. According to our fieldwork, food preparation is mostly carried out by volunteers, in part due to the lack of funding for staff to carry out this task. Local governments face serious limitations in smaller towns and rural areas to contribute funding personnel. In most of the cases, cooks in canteens are the mothers of students (in a few cases also fathers, who usually work in the fields). Teachers also often help in the kitchen, because the staff is not enough. Very importantly, parents also help school canteens by growing vegetables and taking care of animals in small farms near schools. In some of these cases, working for the school canteen was a source of food not only for students but also for their parents.

Assessment of the Practice

The analyzed case shows how fiscal transfers from the federal government are crucial to deliver critical social services, especially in poorer localities of the interior and rural areas. Local governments also play a key role, mostly through the personal involvement of the mayor. Her main role is mostly to secure food for students and decent infrastructure for schools and their canteens.

But the study also presents a novel dynamic. Community participation has been crucial in innumerable cases around the world. Its most usual role is to improve social services by increasing accountability. This dynamic is present in most larger cities and across urban areas in the province. It also provides networks of social engagement, characteristically in parents’ associations, to help improving services at schools.

But in many school canteens in Chaco, particularly those in remote localities and in rural areas, the direct involvement of the community has been crucial to run canteens. Parents and teachers help cooking meals, growing vegetables and raising animals to provide a reliable source of food for children. Sometimes parents also get their own food in the schools.

Despite the optimistic note related to the role of community participation in the delivery of social services in poorer districts and rural areas, it is important to stress the enormous limitations in the role of federal and provincial transfers in this study. Without them being relevant in the provision of this and other social services, it is very unlikely that very unequal developing countries, such as the one under study here, can reduce the enormous disparities across their territories.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Britos S, O’Donnell A, Ugalde V, and Clacheo R, ‘Programas Alimentarios En Argentina’ (Centro de Estudios sobre Nutrición Infantil, 2003)

——, Díaz Langou G, Veleda C, Florito J, Chichizola N, and Acuña M, ‘Lineamientos Para Una Politica Federal de Alimentacion Escolar’ (CIPPEC, 2016)

Díaz Langou G and others, ‘Los Modelos de Gestion de Los Servicios de Comedores Escolares En Argentina’ (CIPPEC, 2014)

Dirección Nacional de Maternidad e Infancia (2006)

Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (INDEC), ‘Censo nacional de población, hogares y viviendas 2010: censo del Bicentenario: resultados definitivos’ (INDEC, 2012)

—— ‘Tablas abreviadas de mortalidad por sexo y edad 2008-2010. Total del país y provincias’ (INDEC, Serie Análisis Demográfico N° 37, 2013)

[1] Ana de la O, Lucas Gonzalez and Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro, ‘Voluntary Audits: Experimental Evidence on a New Approach to Monitoring Front-Line Bureaucrats’ (APSA Annual Meeting, Washington DC, August/September 2019).

[2] Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (INDEC), ‘Censo nacional de población, hogares y viviendas 2010: censo del Bicentenario: resultados definitivos’ (INDEC 2012).

[3] ibid 116.

[4] Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (INDEC), ‘Tablas abreviadas de mortalidad por sexo y edad 2008-2010. Total del país y provincias’ (INDEC, Serie Análisis Demográfico N° 37, 2013).

[5] Sergio Britos, Gala Díaz Langou, Cecilia Veleda, José Florito, Nuria Chichizola, and Malena Acuña, ‘Lineamientos Para Una Politica Federal de Alimentacion Escolar’ (CIPPEC 2016).

[6] Dirección Nacional de Maternidad e Infancia (2006) 52.

[7] Sergio Britos, Alejandro O’Donnell, Vanina Ugalde, and Rodrigo Clacheo, ‘Programas Alimentarios En Argentina’ (Centro de Estudios sobre Nutrición Infantil 2003).

[8] Britos and others,  ‘Lineamientos Para Una Politica Federal de Alimentacion Escolar’. Also see Gala Díaz Langou, Pablo Bezem, Carolina Aulicino, Estefanía Cano, and Belén Sánchez, ‘Los Modelos de Gestion de Los Servicios de Comedores Escolares En Argentina’ (CIPPEC 2014).

[9] Gala Díaz Langou and others, ‘Los Modelos de Gestion de Los Servicios de Comedores Escolares En Argentina’, above.