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Demand for free meals at schools causes stir in Georgia

20 October 2021
A Nika Melia for campaign billboard that reads 'Free food in Tbilisi’s public schools'. Photo: OC Media/Tata Shoshiashvili.

A recently launched initiative for universal free meals for school children has been met with praise from the Georgian public, though some critics have also made themselves heard. A similar demand has also been unveiled by United National Movement (UNM) mayoral candidate Nika Melia. 

‘The academic achievement of hungry students generally lags behind that of other students’, Tata Verulashvili one of the organisers of the We Demand Universal Free Meals in Schools campaign, and a member of Khma, the campaign’s parent organisation told OC Media.

According to research carried out by the Centre for Training and Consultancy, a Georgia-based research NGO, ‘77% of pupils surveyed in Georgia say that when they go to school they sometimes (42%) or always (35%) experience a feeling of hunger.’

‘Khma’ was founded roughly six months ago, as a ‘movement’ concerned with addressing ‘class issues’, including labour rights, poverty, housing, and accessibility and affordability of medicine.  

According to Verulashvili, Khma began working on the free meals in school campaign this past Spring, despite it only going public four days ago. According to estimates made by Khma, it would cost ₾71 million ($23 million) per year to pay for free meals for pupils around Georgia.  

Upon launch, many Georgian Facebook users praised the initiative. 

‘A lot of parents would be relieved. An exceptionally good undertaking’, wrote Paciko Gabedava, Facebook user, noting that free breakfast for students is common in many countries around the world. Another user, Emma Gabedava wrote that she supports the campaign because ‘children should never be hungry anywhere!’.

Support for the campaign has gone beyond social media users, however. 

Ana Arganashvili, Executive Director of the Partnership for Human Rights, a Georgia-based human rights watchdog. told OC Media that, in her opinion, it is ‘a very important initiative’ that must be carried out to completion ‘without stumbling’.  

The demand has also been adopted by Nika Melia, one of the main competitors in the Tbilisi Mayoral race and the chair of UNM — the largest opposition party in Georgia. 

Campaign promises

Although the initiative launched by the Movement ‘Khma’ was officially launched on 14 October, several days later a similar proposal was publicly adopted by Nika Melia on 18 October — with billboards unveiled around the city that promised ‘free food in Tbilisi’s public schools’ if Melia was elected mayor of Tbilisi on 30 October. 

Tata Verulashvili told OC Media that she thinks it is likely that Melia took inspiration from Khma in adopting this policy. 

‘Of course, at first, it was our initiative’, she said. Nevertheless, she added, she and other Khma members were ‘surprised’ to see UNM adopt the proposal, given the party’s long history of promoting free-market policies including the privatisation of public schools. 

With this history in consideration, she dismissed Melia’s promise as little more than a ‘pre-election masquerade’.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has questioned Melia’s ability to deliver on his promise to feed school children.

‘This is a lie — no public school is subject to the [jurisdiction of] Tbilisi City Hall’,  Lado Bozhadze, a Georgian Dream candidate for the Tbilisi City Council wrote on Facebook under a photo of the Melia billboard. ‘Why is Nika Melia lying so arrogantly?’

Schools in Tbilisi and throughout Georgia operate under the auspices of Georgia’s Ministry of Education. Kindergartens in the capital, however, are under the auspices of the municipality and mayor’s office. 

As of publication, Melia has promised to explain to the public how he would be able to carry out the school meal policy as mayor, but has not yet done so. 

There have also been scattered criticisms of the school meal proposal itself. In a Facebook post, Paata Sheshelidze, economist and head of the New Economic School - Georgia, a Georgia-based libertarian think tank, denounced the idea as ‘a promise to eat one’s fill on another person’s dime’. 

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