The Free Senior High School policy, an important initiative of the Akufo-Addo administration, stands as a monumental welfare program, significantly eradicating financial barriers to secondary education in Ghana and opening new doors for countless children.

However, the implementation of this groundbreaking policy faced formidable challenges. Public opinion was sharply divided: should the Free SHS target only the financially disadvantaged, or should its rollout have awaited the necessary infrastructure for effective implementation? These debates intensified when Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta, in 2017, proposed the exclusion of financially capable families from the program. Despite these challenges, the policy has not only endured but also thrived, if this assertion is anything to go by, then Vice President Dr Mahamudu Bawumia places it succinctly under this cliché.

This claim is right to some extent. This is because the policy, according to the government, has produced the best WASSCE results in the last eight years. Aside from this, it has achieved the very goal the Akufo Administration set out for itself when proposed the policy. According to the Ministry of Education, 2017/2018 saw the highest enrolment in the country’s history when 470,000 students enrolled in senior high school since the programme was rolled out.

However, a critical issue remains unaddressed: numerous campuses face alarming food shortages, substandard meals, and even weevil-infested supplies from the Free SHS secretariat – a grim reality that many are hesitant to speak about.

It is for this reason I go undercover in the country’s senior high schools in the Western, Greater Accra, Northern, Oti, and Central regions to investigate the irregular supply of food items by the government, and the dire consequences faced by thousands of students. My name is Kwetey Nartey.

When the free SHS policy began, food supplied to schools was in abundance. The situation has reversed. Irregularities in food supply are an open secret, discussed in WhatsApp groups among senior high school heads and Free SHS coordinators. My infiltration into these platforms has revealed desperate messages from schools across the Central region including Mfantsipim School, Adisadel College, Nsaba Presbyterian SHS, Assin Manso SHS, and Aburaman SHS urgently requesting adequate food supplies.

“Good evening coordinator, please last week I pre informed you of the level of our food items, especially our grains and legumes. Since we have only two bags of rice left, this can only feed our students for our lunch tomorrow, Monday. Consequently, there will be no food at all to feed the students in the evening tomorrow. No more rice, no maize, no beans, no gari! Furthermore, no mackerel, no sardines!”

Here, at Assin Nsuta SHS in the Central region, the harsh reality comes to life: a dining hall prefect somberly informs first-year students of the insufficient food supply. Their meals are reduced to simple, often nutritionally inadequate options. This situation is not unique to the Central region but is echoed across schools in other regions.

Entire school communities are despondent, worry is visibly written on the faces of hundreds of students, especially those first-year students who are expressing life outside the comfort of their homes for the first time. Until the government provides adequate supplies, the students will continue to go hungry in many schools. This dietary monotony was particularly challenging for Sam, a student I met at University Practice Senior High School, who described it as his toughest experience. The stark reality for him and many others is a constant struggle between being undernourished or staying hungry. Like many students, Sam finds it difficult to express how worried he is about this issue.

Every night, Sam and his peers are haunted by this grim reality, these children go to bed burdened with thoughts about what they will eat when they wake up to a new day. It is no fault of theirs, that the government that promised their parents free education is unable to provide enough food to feed their youthful appetites. This issue extends beyond the Central region, as school authorities from several senior high schools in the Upper West region have also shared with JoyNews.

Many school heads are hard-pressed in their bid to feed the students properly. But, the stark reality is, that they can only offer the students what government supplies. My visit to Chereponi Senior High School in the Northeast region reveals students being served meals that barely meet nutritional standards.

The students tell me their joy will know no bounds the day they will be served jollof rice with fish or chicken. But, they know it’s a pipe dream. Since the academic session began, the only food they have known is soup accompanying tuo zaafi for supper.

The picture is no different at the Ahantaman Senior High School in the Western region. Here students tell me they are served rice and porridge. These first-year students who thronged the dining hall were expecting to be served a breakfast that was balanced in nutrition. But, that isn’t the case. What they had was porridge without milk and bread.

At Oti Senior High School, students were provided with this tom brown meal for breakfast.

The Headmaster of Jirapa Senior High School, Primus Baro, also points to the erratic and unplanned manner of food supply to schools as the root cause of this issue.

At the Achimota School, the students have been served fried rice and sauce. The food appears to have less nutritional value.  Some of the students complained about the quantity of what they served.

I've named this student Kwaku for anonymity. He rates the meals they receive a mere 5 out of 10. Kwaku recalls the beans and oil served in the dining hall as the most unpalatable meal he's had. The memory of its unpleasant odour still vividly lingers in his mind.

At Accra Academy, students frequently receive meals like rice with stew. However, on occasions when they are served beans, it notably lacks accompaniment like ripe plantain. Similarly, when kenkey is provided, it often comes without fish.

Experts, including clinical psychologists and educational researchers, emphasize the importance of a balanced diet for students' physical and mental development. Unfortunately, the current food situation in schools falls short of these requirements. Clinical psychologist, Dr Nuako says a balanced diet is very important for the brain development of students. According to him, a variety of food doesn’t only nourish the brain, but, enhances health.

Back to the online platform I had infiltrated, I discovered numerous complaints from school heads about weevil-infested maize bags supplied by Covenant Farms Company. Despite assurances from the Free SHS coordinator that only a few bags were affected, my observations revealed several bags of maize being treated with neem tree leaves to ward off the pests. Given the critical food shortages, some school heads have conveyed to me their inability to discard the contaminated maize, as there's scarcely enough to feed the students.

Gilfred Asiamah is a researcher with the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development. He was part of a team that surveyed views from Ghanaians on the free SHS policy.  He believes for the free SHS to make sound gains on the education front, the government must be open to suggestions from both policy and practice. He claims cracking down on dissenting voices will not augur well for the sustainability of the programme.

The Conference of Heads of Assisted Secondary Schools in the recent past made calls for the disbursement of food under the policy to be reviewed to streamline operations and eliminate challenges in food distribution. The Education Minister Dr. Yaw Adutwum has rejected this call. He argues that placing such control in the hands of the school heads does not provide a solution to the problem. However, former GIMPA rector Prof Stephen Adei believes operating the centralized system breeds corruption and questions whether it should be maintained.

Gilbert perhaps puts it succinctly. The free SHS policy has giant strides in opening the doors for more students who ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to afford secondary education, but, it’s equally important for the government to open up to suggestions rather than antagonising critical voices.

As discussions between policy and practice continue, the urgent need for a well-balanced diet for thousands of students remains unresolved. These food supply irregularities in schools represent just one facet of the broader range of implementation hurdles faced by the free SHS policy.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.