The school feeding programme has been identified as a potential sustainable market for local farmers. Prof Carlisle Pemberton, the president of the Agro-Economic Society, speaking on Monday at the 33rd West Indies Agriculture Economics Conference at Mt Irvine Bay Resort, believes a direct link to school feeding will solve existing problems in the agri sector and encourage growth.
Pemberton's comments was based on research done by his team in a number of countries. This research will soon be published under the title, State of Caribbean School Feeding Programs: a driver for education and domestic production.
The research includes the criteria when supplying school lunches including: nutritional intake, quality control measures, meal costs, economic benefits and demand and supply.
Pemberton said the increasing amount of imported foods used in the school feeding programme has stifled the local agriculture sector. This trend can be reversed by introducing more locally grown produce in the programme’s daily meals.
He said, “What we are trying to do is come up with the ingredients that will allow us to put forward a combination of ingredients that would meet the requirements of the children nutritionally. We are trying to reorient the meals to introduce more local content.”
He believes this idea will benefit large and small-scale farmers. Pemberton said although provisions and vegetables are not a popular choice in schools, introducing small portions and encouraging students to eat healthier is one remedial measure to decrease the amount of imported foods used in the lunches. Education Minister Anthony Garcia has also been a strong advocate for introducing healthier meals in schools.
Pemberton estimated 75 per cent of the cost of food in the programme in Trinidad goes towards ingredients, “and it is higher in Tobago. I estimated about 80 per cent because of the transportation factor. It is a significant problem.
“All of these things point for the need for more study to be done. What we did is stimulation, where we varied the percentage of the food and we were able to see the impact of the cost ratio. There seems to be a lot of work that needs to be done, in terms of getting the local content organised in a way to fuel the sector and supply to the school feeding programme."
He added, "What we considered here is marginal analysis, which point to the kind of increase in agriculture production that can come from the school feeding programme focusing on local input.”
Pemberton acknowledged that there are still significant hurdles within the agriculture sector that won't be magically rectified, even with a guaranteed market.
“That doesn’t solve the problem of agriculture production, it will just provide market but now the agriculture sector has to step up and solve all the problem within the sector, as well as operate microeconomic environment to bring about the revolution we want.”
Pemberton expressed concern about how farmers are going to produce what is needed, as there are “problems that are inherited in the agriculture sector that are not necessarily arising in agriculture." He said economic conditions affect agriculture more than the factors relating to agriculture.
The conference continues tomorrow with an in-depth discussion focused on issues facing Tobago’s agriculture sector, its school feeding programme and sustainable economic development. The conference concludes on Friday.