Women who cook for millions of pupils share their pain

Volunteer cooks have decried the horrible conditions under which they work at Gauteng schools where they prepare meals for pupils as part of the education department’s feeding scheme.

The volunteers, who are known as volunteer food handlers ( VFHs), lamented their conditions at a media briefing in Parktown on Wednesday.

They said their back-breaking work was not recognised as formal work and they were also being stigmatised by school staff for being poor.

Also, they said, they are undervalued because they are dispensable as they had signed a two-year agreement with the school after which another cohort of volunteers will be recruited.

Over 600 000 VFHs, who are paid a monthly stipend of up to R1 600, are mostly unemployed mothers and community members whose children are in the schools targeted by the feeding scheme.

“Even the youth that come through the PYEI [Presidential Youth Employment Initiative] earn from R3 500,” said VFH Khuli Gumede.

VFHs, they said, were made to sign agreements with the schools which stipulated that they were neither employees of the school nor the department of education. “We are volunteers, but we pay UIF [unemployment insurance fund],” said Gumede.

As part of the terms and conditions of the contract, she said, VFHs had to sign an attendance register daily and find a suitable substitute at their own expense when unable to discharge their duties.

The key responsibilities of VFHs are to clean the storage and kitchen every morning and afternoon; prepare food for the pupils and serve them.

 The contract also stipulates that they were expected to practice food safety and hygiene and guide pupils to practice good cleanliness.

In terms of the agreement, “they must manage the kitchen and storage facility according to relevant legislation; receive dry groceries and perishables and place orders for gas refills”.

The women – past and present, with the help of the Labour Research Service’s (LRS) gender equality programme – are taking steps to organise themselves so that they have a forum to express their concerns with the department of basic education.

Zodwa Rannyadi, a member of the Diepkloof branch of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, who was a VFH 15 years ago, said the working conditions of VFHs had not changed much.

“Because cooking is considered a woman’s work, what VFHs are doing is not considered work but an extension of their roles at home,” she said.

Patricia Lebelo, whose two-year contract ended last week, said they were not even allowed to carry handbags or bags because there is a stigma that they steal food. “You leave after two years without even a certificate to show that you have worked as a VFH. There are no training opportunities that empower us by the end of the two years,” she said.

“When we have no gas; we make a fire to cook. When there is no pot; we bring our own pots to cook. When there’s no running water; we fetch it. We ensure that the children are fed, it does not matter the challenges.”

Denosa’s secretary in the Central Wits Region, Thendo Mposi, was shocked when he learnt that four women were responsible for cooking for up to 1 500 children daily.

Mposi, whose organisation attended the briefing, said there were a number of health and safety rules that were being flouted.

Nina Benjamin, LRS gender programme coordinator, said the meeting was the first step to give the women a voice.

The department of education did not respond to questions regarding the VFHs.

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