The trinidad Guardian / Caterers who provide meals under the National Schools Dietary Services’ (NSDSL) School Feeding Programme are warning they may be unable to continue providing breakfasts and lunches due to a huge debt outstanding to them.
Education Minister Anthony Garcia is assuring caterers will be paid, but also believes the programme needs reviewing.
Several caterers who spoke with the T&T Guardian on condition of anonymity said collectively they were owed substantial amounts.
They admitted they had received 25 per cent of their payments as recently as September for meals provided dating back to May, but said this had not made a dent on the debt and they are now unable to pay suppliers and staff.
Caterers lamented that suppliers were now threatening to stop supplying them with the items they needed to prepare meals for thousands of children across the country.
“We have been dipping into our savings since September to ensure that the meals are provided but our personal savings have been depleted and we just cannot continue,” one caterer said.
Another said she would have no choice but to stop supplying breakfast and lunch from next Monday.
“I just don’t have the money and my suppliers are saying they can no longer give me the necessary items because they have not been paid, so they can’t give any more credit. It is really a mess.”
Her outstanding bill to suppliers was in excess of $350,000, she said.
Caterers, many of whom have been in the programme for more than 20 years, say they had never experienced payment problems. They said many of the children who benefited from the meals needed them because “it’s the only meals they get for the day, some of the children are really poor. It will impact them.”
In addition to payments to staff, they said October was a critical month because it was when they made VAT payments to the Board of Inland Revenue.
They urged Garcia to make an intervention to ask the BIR to defer that payment until they were paid.
There are some 87 caterers who provide meals to 820 schools across the country.
Yesterday, Garcia said the programme was currently providing 55,000 breakfast meals and 88,000 lunches on a daily basis. He acknowledged many children genuinely needed the meals provided, but said a review was needed because “there is a lot of waste.
“Some of the children who are enlisted on the programme are not collecting the meals.”
“We need to review the programme to ensure the meals are supplied to those who most need it. That is the objective of the programme.”
He acknowledged money was owed to the caterers.
“We made a small payment last week and will continue to make payments.
“The bottom line is that they will be paid,” Garcia said, adding the figure was significant, with some being owed close from $.5 million and upwards.
Garcia had already announced last month that the programme will be allocated $43 million as a result of a reduction in funding.
Former government Minister Devant Maharaj said yesterday the NSDSL may have breached the contract with caterers due to non-payment for services.
Efforts to contact CEO of the NSDSL Stacy Baron were unsuccessful.