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The Crisis of the School Food Program

The situation of the School Food Program (PAE, for its acronym in Spanish) seems like a starving child, a diagnosis based on three symptoms:

  • Coverage continues to be low despite being a long-standing program, whose final goal is universality
  • Operation patterns affect quality
  • Decentralization is poor and average at best

With respect with the first symptom, it is noticeable to recall that in back in 2016 – eighty years after taking the historical decision of permanently allotting public funds to school cafeterias – scarcely 58% of the children and adolescents enrolled in public schools are beneficiaries of the PAE.

Coverage, in reality, is less, as in the same year, the whole school year was covered in just 20 of 95 certified territorial entities, namely the responsible parties in charge of executing the program and which include all the Colombian provinces and main municipalities if the country.

The preceding means that coverage is overestimated, as they count a student which goes to a school cafeteria one day the same as the one which goes for 180 days which is actually a whole school calendar year.

If we take into consideration the days in which in reality students receive food in said cafeterias, the service is reduced from 58% to 46 %.

Furthermore, coverage is not only low but heterogeneous, without considering how it is measured; for instance while in the municipalities of Mitú (Province of Vaupés), Girón (Province of Santander), Montería (Province of Córdoba) and Duitama (Province of Boyacá) coverage did not surpass 20%, in Tumaco (Province of Cauca), Uribia (Province of La Guajira) and the city of Bogotá they all have coverage between 90% and 100%. Meaning that a student in Uribia has five times more opportunity to be a beneficiary of the program than a student in Mitú.

Operator weaknesses

In the verification visits carried out by the Colombian Ministry of Education (MEN, for its Spanish acronym) to the schools allowed evidencing a second symptom: The operational weaknesses of the PAE.

It is worrisome that in 2016 almost 70% of the schools visited did not have the equipment necessary to preserve foods and that not all personnel had the certifications to validate their capability to handle foods; therefore food is wasted, not served at the right temperature, or served at the corresponding weight per ration.

Furthermore, the infrastructure of school cafeterias and kitchen utensils of over half of the visited schools were precarious and inadequate.

The issues evidenced seem to be linked to the type of operator and operation. Results show that 71% of the weaknesses are centered when only one operator carries out the program, specifically non-profit, private or temporary business associations.

Likewise, 82% of the weaknesses are focused on institutions which prepare food rations  in situ or those which deliver food to be divided and distributed into rations. These operations lack infrastructure, equipment, and suitable staff.

Without funds

The third symptom is related to the current institutional arrangements which correspond to a poor and partial decentralization.  After a long process, the PAE was passed to the MEN, then to the Colombian Family Welfare Institute and back to the MEN.

Since 2001, the province and municipalities are responsible for the program, therefore this explains why although the guarantors of its execution are 95 certified territorial entities, 40% of the budget comes directly from the MEN.

The contribution of the MEN is added to the other six forms of funding –with different times and administrative processes – which together form the “common funds” which the territorial entities go to.

The budgetary entanglement obstructs the traceability of the public funds and eases corruption, so condemned in recent years.

The situation has worsened even more because in the last few years the Ministry of Education has reduced its participation in 11%, part that the provinces and municipalities have had to compensate in any way or manner, as according to the law, program coverage rates cannot be reduced, showing that the responsibility is decentralized but with insufficient funds.

The challenge now has other dimensions if the universalization of the program is seriously assumed as a goal. With the valid levels of quality and coverage, the PAE costs COP$1.6 billion.

For its current beneficiaries to experience the program during their whole school period it is necessary to add a total of COL$ 500.000.000 to the total global budget of the program and if they want to achieve universality they would need close to COL$ 1.8 billion, in other words, increase the global budget in 115%.

Effective decentralization

It is evident that the PAE is on the verge of a crisis. How can this be fixed? On one hand, it is necessary to close the gap between coverage and quality, so the more lagging territories match those that have better performance.

For this, it could be useful to redirect the operation of the program on a regional scale. The association of several geographically close territories would allow exploiting scale economies to reduce and unify average costs per portion improving performance with the same budget.

Although the PAE is looking to, at all costs, minimize school desertion, it is convenient to recognize the importance for the regional economy. As they do in Brazil, where they can guarantee the participation of medium and large local agricultural producers as suppliers.

On the other hand, it is necessary to simplify the budgetary process of the PAE. It would be more convenient to transfer the funds provided by the MEN to the General Participation System to pay for operational costs and additionally establish a progressive increase, linked to coverage and quality goals, in the percentage this system destines to school nutrition.

The funds of the General Royalties System should be allotted exclusively to invest in PAE infrastructure and equipment. These measures will allow advancing towards an effective decentralization, with fewer corruption risks and empowering civil society in one of the oldest social strategies and of greater impact in the country.

Consejo Editorial