Caracas. – Klaireth Díaz is a 1st-grade teacher at Elías Toro School, one of the biggest public schools in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.
Last year, she says, attendance was painfully low. Every day, of a class of 30 children at least 10 would be absent.
“The reason was always lack of food,” she told Fox News Latino.
She said she had a student who skipped class every single Thursday and when she asked his mother about it, she explained that Thursday was the day of the week assigned to her family to buy food at government-regulated prices – which involves standing in line starting sometimes as early as 3 a.m.
“She told me she couldn’t leave the child alone at home and didn’t have anybody to bring him to school,” Díaz said.
Diaz also once saw a child faint during a cultural event. Across the country, teachers have said they have seen children faint or fall asleep because they haven't had enough to eat.
“When he came to he told me that he had only eaten an arepa (cornbread) at 10 a.m. It was 3 p.m.,” she said.
As the school year progressed last year, Diaz said, she noticed more and more kids had stopped bringing lunch.
“At the beginning of the school year every children bring their lunch. At the end they didn’t. They said their mom didn’t have money to buy food,” she said.
Elías Toro School used to provide lunch through a feeding program, but it stopped years ago.
According to Miguel Pizarro, a lawmaker from the opposition, the government spends barely 5 bolivars per meal in public schools -- 5 bolivars are $0.007 at the official rate.
“A child who does not eat well does not learn well. Some children fall asleep and when you investigate what’s going on you find out it is because they don’t eat. When we see that a child does not bring lunch we have them share; we handle the situation so that they do not feel affected,” Diaz said. “Children are supportive in that regard.”
Congressman Pizarro called out the government of Nicolas Maduro for spending millions of dollars on weapons, not food.
“Instead of fighting invented wars, we must fight hunger. With less than 2 percent of the national budget we could ensure that no schoolchild goes to bed on an empty stomach,” he wrote on Twitter.
According to a poll conducted last month by More Consulting among 2,000 respondents in Caracas, in 48 percent of the times children do not attend school, the cause is related to the food. Either they are feeling too weak for lack of nutrition, or their parents rather use the transport money to buy food, or they are in the food lines with their parents.
The poll revealed that 36.5 percent of children eat only twice a day and 10.2 percent just once. For 11.9 percent of the children, which means 964,737 kids, the 5-bolivars school lunch is their only meal of the day.
While currently almost 30 percent of people surveyed said their children attended private school, 17.5 percent of them stated they were going to change them to a public school.
Five percent of the parents surveyed were considering taking their children out of school altogether.
Additionally, a vast majority of public school are facing the new academic years with infrastructure problems. Carmen Teresa Marquez, secretary of Venezuelan Federation of Teachers, said that in many schools computers and desks were stolen during the summer period.
“That adds up to the fact that school supplies are impossible to pay for. People have to decide between buying a notebook or buy food,” Márquez told Fox News Latino.
The tag price for a list of supplies for a child from elementary school comes up to 111,577.33 bolivars ($17.7, and almost five times the monthly minimum wage), according to the Center for Documentation and Analysis for Workers.
María Emilia Jorge M. is a freelancer journalist living in Caracas, Venezuela.