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Ghana: Students go hungry during caterers' strike

Maxwell Suuk Tamale, Ghana
May 24, 2022

Striking school cooks in Ghana want a year's backdated salary and an increased feeding allocation. Caterers blame soaring prices on the war in Ukraine. Millions of children will not be fed until the issues are resolved.

Students assemble on their school compound on the first day of the reopening of schools in Accra, Ghana, on January 18, 2021
Ghana had been struggling with low school enrollment due to extreme poverty and malnutritionImage: NIPAH DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the Ghana School Feeding Program (GSFP) began their strike action at the beginning of May.

School cooks who prepare pupils' meals put down their cooking utensils to protest unpaid wages and demand more government money to pay for the school lunches. 

The ongoing strike action means that millions of pupils are going without food until the government gives in to the demands of the striking caterers.

Children suffering

At the Kogni primary school in Tamale, in northern Ghana, the pupils' usually playful energy has become noticeably subdued due to their hunger.

"Sometimes we come to school without food and our parents do not give us money," said 14-year-old Dempuyet Mercy, who has been receiving meals from the government's school feeding program for 10 of the 17 years it has existed. 

Children in Mozambique holding hands to form a circle during their school break
Around 4 million school children across Ghana are missing out on free school meals because of the strikeImage: UNICEF/UNI46342/Pirozzi

For each warm meal Mercy eats, the government pays about 1 Ghanaian cedi ($0.13 cents, €0.12 cents). The School Feeding Caterers Association wants an increase to 3 cedis per meal.

"We are not going to cook until we hear something from them," the association's chair, Juliana Cudjoe, told local radio station Joy News. "We need our payment — and we want an increment too."   

Corruption allegations

In addition to their demand of an increased feeding allocation, the association wants the government to pay a year's backdated salary to their members.

When the strike came into force, the government organization that oversees the Ghana School Feeding Program issued what some described as an "out of touch with reality" press statement, ordering the caterers to go back to their kitchens.

Playful learning in Ghana

The caterers ignored it, going ahead with their strike.

Ten days later, Gender Minister Sarah Adwoa Safo fired the program's chief, Gertrude Quashigah.

The exact reasons for this were not clarified. But in September 2021, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said he had asked the finance ministry to transfer 31 million cedis ($4 million, €3.7 million) to the program.

However, the caterers' association claimed the GSFP still owes it about a year's salary.

Effects of poverty and malnutrition

Children are bearing the brunt of the strike.

"You drink water before going [to school], and your stomach hurts. But you can't do anything. You have to take it," explained Mercy.

At her age, she is supposed to be in second junior secondary school. But she is among those whose parents cannot afford to send them to school.

The government's feeding scheme was meant to attract children like Mercy to school, even if only for the warm meal.

Typical Ghanaian food banku being served and cooked by patients at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital
Banku, balls formed from a slightly fermented mixture of corn and cassava dough, is one food typical to GhanaImage: Jordi Perdigo/AA/picture alliance

Ghana had been struggling with low school enrollment, especially in poorer communities, due to extreme poverty and malnutrition.

The idea of providing meals for young students started in 2005. Even though it was well received by many, there have been widespread accusations of corruption at the GSFP — ranging from supplying unhealthy meals to nonpayment of wages to caterers.  

"They owe us, so we want them to do something about it for us," Christiana Dery told DW.

She was the only caterer who agreed to speak to DW for this story. Many others feared that the GSFP could single them out for speaking to the press, and take their contracts away.

"You cannot be working and not get what you are working for," Dery added.

Impact of the war in Ukraine 

The School Feeding Caterers Association had been threatening for some time to strike.

Dery told DW that the last straw was an increase in the price of groceries due to the war in Ukraine.  

People shop at busy Kaneshi Market in Accra, Ghana on December 21, 2020
Inflation in Ghana has soared since Russia invaded Ukraine, pushing up the prices of goods at marketsImage: Christian Thompson/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

"Nowadays, things are hard," she said.

"When you go to the market, you cannot get food to buy for even 1 cedi, let alone 97 pesewas [100 pesewas make 1 cedi]. So we are demanding that the increase should be 3 cedis per child." 

An estimated 4 million school children in 11,000 public schools across Ghana are missing out on their free school meals because of the strike.

Officials from the GSFP Secretariat met with the striking caterers last week, but failed to reach an agreement.

Agnes Gandaa, who works at the Integrated Social Development Center in Tamale, said: "The government, at this critical time of our children's education, should do everything possible to provide the funds that make it possible for the policy to be implemented, for the matrons to return, and for children to be in school as expected."

Until the government is able to get the caterers back into the kitchens, the pupils at the school in Kogni will continue to see their food bowls sitting empty in the schoolyard.

Tackling malnutrition in Ghana

This article was originally written for radio broadcast, it was adapted by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh and edited by Keith Walker.

Portait photo of Maxwell Suuk
Maxwell Suuk Maxwell is a DW reporter based in Tamale, Northern Ghana.