To understand how the community perceives voluntary food handlers, we must first consider their dual roles. Voluntary food handlers are employees of the school and members of the broader community.
Through engaging with various groups in Gauteng Province, we have some clarity about the role of voluntary food handlers in the National School Nutrition Program (NSNP). We also know more about how the different communities view these workers.
In the school community, voluntary food handlers experience undervaluing and insecurity. At the community level, people view food handlers with distrust and negativity. The community members evaluate the role of the voluntary food handler through a biased lens and the poverty, unemployment and job insecurity perpetuate it.
Responsibilities, hiring and evaluation process
Voluntary food handlers are hired through the National School Nutrition Programme to prepare and serve nutritious meals and ensure the cleanliness and sterility of cooking areas. The position is competitive. Many unemployed parents apply and get on a waiting list.
Voluntary food handlers are all unemployed parents and community members who face hardship in the context of high inequality and unemployment rate. The majority of the workers are women and often mothers of learners in the school. For a monthly stipend of R1 600, the voluntary food handlers operate school kitchens five to six days a week. Everyone agrees the pay is paltry. Still, the job postings attract many candidates who seek to earn an income.
The voluntary food handler sees value in the role of cooking for school children. Yet the members of the communities in which they operate don’t share the same sentiment. Even the evaluating process of the school nutrition programme seems to view these workers separately. While the program is seen as necessary and lauded for its successes, lacklustre performance is likely to be attributed to voluntary food handlers. Take the participants of a meeting held in the Vaal and comprising previous food handlers, parents, community workers and current and previous beneficiaries of the school nutrition programme. They overwhelmingly expressed dissatisfaction with voluntary food handlers and their role in the NSNP.
How does the community view the voluntary food handler role?
The sentiments of the community members offer some insight.
On the one hand, they see the NSNP as a needed intervention for mitigating poverty, food insecurity and low performance of learners. But they also see the programme failing at the hands of voluntary food handlers who they view as dishonest, self-serving, and unskilled. For example, when asked if the NSNP is important, a community member said:
“Yes, the government provides food for disadvantaged children; however, the problem is that the cooks misbehave.”
Voluntary food handlers are also community members who live amongst and interact with the community throughout their employment in the NSNP and some community members can be subjective and present their personal views and misconceptions about them as facts.
For example, some former food handlers expressed unhappiness with how current voluntary food handlers connect with school children. Displeased with the short-term nature of the food handler job, they said:
“(When we were voluntary food handlers) we cooked out of the compassion we had for the children. Lately, the cooks don’t care but do it because they are desperate for employment.”
Other community members said voluntary food handlers are under-skilled and can’t deliver palatable and nutritious food to children:
“The cooks don’t eat the food they cook”.
Also, they took issue with the perceived bad attitudes and self-serving habits of voluntary food handlers:
“…Remuneration for the cooks is not enough, which encourages them to steal supplies to supplement their incomes.”
One community member felt the NSNP appeared perfect on paper but is different in reality.
“… As community workers, we are unhappy because the cooks make snide remarks towards kids such as, ‘you’re taking food because you are poor’ or ‘you don’t want food because you think you’re better.”
The school as the workplace
The views of the community members about certain food handlers extend to the school community. It’s common for school children to behave in a certain way towards some food handlers after hearing talk in the community.
“…rumours of witchcraft cause children to refrain from eating when certain cooks are on shift.”
The voluntary food handlers said some schoolchildren are disrespectful and make the job hard when they scatter food and dishes in the school compound. Meanwhile, school children (who are the direct beneficiaries of the program) complained about the food given to them, saying:
“The food (they give us) has no salt or spice. It’s dry and not tasty. They give us tinned fish cooked in boiled water”.
Voluntary food handlers get blamed when schoolchildren fall sick, even without adequate investigation. However, this view lacks consideration of the fact that food handlers prepare meals according to set methods, recipes and ingredients provided to them through the nutrition programme. A male community worker at the Vaal community meeting explained that many complaints emerged from the community about the lack of cleanliness in school kitchens, which he attributed to the laxity of food handlers.
Voluntary food handlers felt overlooked in the school community during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite being essential workers, they were overlooked for priority vaccination. Members of the school community are known to carry out unfair practices towards voluntary food handlers based on negative stigmas. For example, some food handlers said that schoolteachers who supervise them often accuse them of theft and banned handbags at the workplace.
“We are not allowed to carry our bags which segregates us from the rest of the people”.
Also, they are denied access to food storage facilities, which affects their work.
Furthermore, voluntary food handlers are not protected by School Governing Bodies (SGBs) who they say threaten their job security when they raise concerns regarding their working conditions. Because voluntary food handlers are usually parents of children in the schools where they work, they are often perceived as poor and unimportant as everybody knows how much they earn. As a result, they are further demeaned and devalued in the school community. However, they are aware that the learners adopt the devaluing behaviour from other school staff like teachers and principals.
Voluntary food handlers feel that they play a significant role in the lives of school children and the community in general and often go beyond their call of duty to intervene and lend a helping hand wherever needed. Yet, they are still largely undervalued by family and school communities. They yearn to be recognised and valued as workers but feel there’s still a long way to go before it happens.