A Cabinet Minister has apparently broken with his own ministerial colleagues on the decision to curtail the vending at the Grantley Adams Memorial School, even as he announced a national policy aimed at encouraging the sale of more nutritious options to children.
Breaking his silence this morning on the issue, which captured national attention last month, Minister of Small Business Dwight Sutherland blamed instead the school’s administrators and sided with the vendors.
He described as unreasonable the barring of vendors from selling on the school’s compound – a decision that was backed by the Ministry of Education.
But the commerce minister contends that there is more than enough room for the school canteen and vendors to exist harmoniously.
The decision led to a protest by students and staff during a two-week standoff. The stalemate quickly gained national attention, leading the Barbados Association of Retailers, Vendors and Entrepreneurs (BARVEN) to demand the Prime Minister’s intervention.
Sutherland said the new initiative is intended to prevent another crisis by embracing the vendors and widening the healthier choices available to students, as Barbadian authorities with a rising epidemic of childhood obesity and related health issues.
“The vendors now have to get on board with the nutritional value of vending, the minister told journalists. “So as opposed to eliminating, we have to integrate and make sure that they [vendors] provide nutritional value to the students. We have the space for all of them and the Minister of Education, Santia Bradshaw, and I have spoken about it. So I know that she has a plan, which will be executed with the help of BARVEN shortly. So we won’t see anymore challenges around the issue of school vending because we recognise that it is part of our culture.” he stressed.
Sutherland, drawing on his own experience as a high school student, said:
“I don’t think that one canteen can serve all of the students at a school, it is impossible. I went to [The] Lodge School and I bought number of my hamcutters, cheesecutters and drinks from the vendors because some days the lines in the canteens were so long that it would take half-an-hour to be served. So in order to maximise my recreational time I had to go to the vendors on the outside,” said Sutherland, who spoke to reporters following a walk-through of the Swan Street shopping strip on Wednesday.
Last month, Grantley Adams students were locked in the school’s compound to prevent them from patronizing vendors on the outside during their breaks. At one stage police were called in to remove the vendors.
Among the reasons cited was the competition that the vendors were posing to the canteen. After acting Minister of Education Senator Lucille Moe supported the decision, it took an intervention by Education Minister Santia Bradshaw to finally resolve the impasse, granting access only to the longest-serving vendor while others had to apply to the school board for permission.
But the minister said that the argument of unfair competition did not hold water, as both business entities have shared the same customer base for decades.
“This existed for years and I have never heard of school canteens not making money. I know these are tough economic times and people have to hold but my belief is that there is economic space for everyone at the schools. When you look at Grantley Adams, there were people who were working there for eons. So you can’t now tell me now that you are not making profit at this time when you were making profit before,” he argued, noting that in his experience vendors and canteen operators often existed harmoniously for the students’ benefit.