Despite a promise by Education Minister Anthony Garcia that the $43 million reduction to the school feeding programme would not affect the provision of meals, thousands of school children may go hungry from next week as the programme faces possible closure.
This is because caterers with the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd, which manages the programme, told the Newsday they have not been paid since May.
The caterers said they may not be able to continue beyond this week unless the ministry releases money. In addition to thousands of children who depend on the meals, hundreds of people who are employed by the close to 100 caterers would be placed on the breadline.
Told about the issue, Garcia opted to maintain his silence. His communications officer Vishham Ramsaywack promised to speak with CEO Stacy Barran and give a response.
Former Food Production minister Devant Maharaj also confirmed a group of caterers had met with him to highlight their situation and seek his help to recover the money owed to them.
Maharaj said there are approximately 87 approved caterers who employ at least 12 people each and provide over 40,000 breakfasts and approximately 100,000 lunches to 820 schools. He said for many of the recipients, this is the only meal they receive for the day, and appealed to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley not to put their lives at risk.
Caterers said the programme has become a high-risk business as they are now buying substandard goods just to keep the facilities open, because their suppliers are no longer giving them credit.
This statement about risks comes on the heels of reports coming out of Tobago that several children fell ill after eating a school feeding meal on Tuesday.
“We have to produce safe meals, with the correct content, and we are not getting paid, but people are taking chances because they don’t want someone else to get their contract,” the caterer said.
“Remember, because of the floods, we were not buying fruits and vegetables. We were allowed to do so from Monday. Remember, those items have to be sanitised. Well, some people cannot afford to buy proper bleach, so they will just wash it with water.
“Is real madness going on here now because we not getting paid. We keep getting promises and more promises. The CEO has been making trips to the ministry and coming back empty-handed.”
The caterer admitted they usually pay staff fortnightly, but no one will be paid mid-month.
“We also have NIS and the Board of Inland Revenue to pay by November 15, we will not be able to meet that deadline. If we don’t get paid, the programme would have to be shut down,” she predicted.