Earlier this week a photo of the meagre contents of a school kid's lunch box went viral in Malta. It was posted by a teacher in a private group, but was quickly picked up and shared all over Facebook. But the shock of the picture goes beyond what's inside the lunch box, and extends to problems in our country that we're not seeing.
The unnamed child's packed lunch left much to be desired, and consisted of what seemed to be a badly chopped rotten apple and a knobbly unpeeled carrot. Reactions to the post varied from the questionable "I don't see anything wrong with this lunch", to the smug "this is what my child gets (insert photo of perfectly balanced nutritional meal)", to the ridiculous "this is why mothers shouldn't work". But the main consensus was an all-round wave of shock. It seems some of us still aren't accustomed to the idea that poverty and/or neglect could possibly exist on our shores.
"Why are we Maltese so reliant on local television programs and social media to give us an insight into the bleaker side of our real world spectrum?"
The whole episode bares a striking resemblance to a story earlier this year about a youth was discovered to be sleeping rough in a building site in Malta. The 18-year-old male – who was later revealed to have been raised in care and problematic, and whose identity has been kept anonymous – has since been set up with a new job and rented accommodation paid up for a couple of months, until he gets himself together.
Added to these handouts was an outpouring of sympathy, support, and material possessions – such as clothing and toiletries, all thanks to the support of the community. The goodwill was spearheaded by Lilian Chetchuti and the joint efforts of other members of the popular Facebook group, Women for Women.
"These kids just happened to be at their most vulnerable in the presence of a caring spectator with a camera phone"
The "lunchbox kid", also anonymous, has also since been offered the sponsorship of a member of the group The Salott. It begs the question – why are the Maltese so reliant on local television programs and social media to give us an insight into the bleaker side of our real world spectrum?
These poster children are not one-offs, they are just a couple of examples from hundreds of kids that have been failed by the system, which is not limited to the church and the tight knit family ethos we are traditionally accustomed to. They just happened to be at their most vulnerable in the presence of a caring spectator with a camera phone.
There is only so much that social services like Aġenzija Appoġġ, and empathetic teachers who give students financial handouts out of their own pockets can do. Even non-profit, voluntary organisations and food banks are stretched too thinly, with the Food Bank at St Andrews in particular at the risk of closing earlier this year – they just can't keep up.
Incidentally, after a crisis call for help on social media, the food bank garnered the attention and subsequent action from a handful of Maltese businesses. The charity food bank which caters for those below the breadline is now "safe" for up to three months, or until stocks last.
Whilst these outpourings of generosity are extremely honourable, what we really need is a better system. A system that will enable kids on the margins of society, who have grown up in care or in sub-standard environments, or those whose well-meaning parents are simply struggling, to get as good a start in life as everyone else.
It is not enough to fundraise or rely on charity or the all-round "kindness of the Maltese" to save these children, we have to look out for them before they are outed.
And to do that there needs to be a quiet, secure, and viable long term plan to make sure that no child goes hungry. And if parents are unfit or unable to, due to whatever reason — be it mental illness, indifference or financial incapacity – we must entrust in our public and governmental school system and social services to provide a net that can't be slipped through.
There's only so much we can do, we can't control what goes on behind closed doors, but we can control what standards we set in government entities to an extent.
"It is not enough to fundraise or rely on charity or the all-round "kindness of the Maltese" to save these children"
In the past, all Maltese children were given free milk cartons at school to prevent calcium deficiency. We don't need to provide free school meals for every child, but the option of a substantial lunch should be at the disposal of children whose parents are finding it hard to make ends meet. If only to prevent the embarrassing stigma attached with such circumstances.
To truly be a country that strives for excellence, we should call on our Prime Minister, Education Minister, and perhaps even the leader of the Opposition, to promise that our Maltese taxes are going straight to where they're needed most. And if that isn't to a hungry Maltese child in need... then I don't know what is.