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Analysis: Prabowo to adopt a flexible approach to the free school meals program

Jakarta Post - June 5, 2024

Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – President-elect Prabowo Subianto is exploring alternative protein sources to dairy milk for his signature free school lunch program. He is also redefining the program by adopting a more flexible approach while remaining true to its core essence and objectives. This flexibility is crucial due to the country's geographical challenges and, more importantly, the shortage of raw materials needed to support the original program.

Prabowo, who is also the chair of the Indonesian Farmers Association (HKTI), announced in a recent television interview that the free school lunch program is being rebranded as "free nutritious food for children." This change was made because the intended age group typically goes home by noon to 1 p.m., meaning a "free school lunch" would come out too late. The rebranding is likely influenced by pilot tests of the free school lunch program across the country, which found that participating students often took the free lunch home instead of consuming it at school.

Prabowo insisted that the state budget is sufficient to fund the "free nutritious food for children" program, based on calculations by his team of experts. He also noted that distributing free food for children is a proven policy, already implemented in 76 countries. Combating malnutrition, which affects 25 percent of children in Indonesia, remains one of the program's main goals, with Prabowo citing positive impacts on students' health and focus from the pilot tests.

Despite his confidence, Prabowo acknowledged that providing free meals and milk would require substantial funding and would be challenging to implement uniformly across Indonesia's diverse islands. Therefore, he mentioned that alternatives to dairy milk, such as buffalo's milk, goat's milk, eggs and fish, are being considered. These substitutes would be tailored to each region's characteristics, like the availability and consumption of buffalo milk on Moa Island, Maluku.

The flexible implementation of the program is partly driven by local production shortages. According to the Industry Ministry, only about 20 percent of the raw materials needed for liquid milk production can be supplied domestically. Over the past six years, the demand for raw materials in the dairy industry has grown by an average of 5.3 percent annually, outpacing the 1 percent growth rate of fresh milk production. This situation is exacerbated by Indonesia's limited number of dairy cows, which is around 592,000 head, producing only 8 to 12 liters per day each.

Expanding the free meal and milk program to 82.9 million students, santri (Islamic boarding school students) and pregnant women would further strain resources. The annual milk demand would rise from 4.6 million tonnes to 8.7 million tonnes, increasing Indonesia's milk deficit to 7.8 million tonnes per year, as local production only amounts to 900,000 tonnes. In response, the Agriculture Ministry plans to import 2.15 million dairy cows from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and the United States to close the supply gap, costing the country around Rp 90 trillion (US$5.55 billion).

Adjusting the program's contents to local food supplies to reduce costs may be less effective than anticipated due to increased bureaucratic complexity. Despite the benefits of similar programs, Indonesia's low-income population, high population density, varied and archipelagic terrain, and low tax ratio complicate efforts to manage the program's steep fiscal costs. Implementing a reduced scope with income means-testing until state revenue streams improve could help avoid unnecessary bureaucratic overheads.

What we've heard

Prabowo's campaign team is preparing to introduce the free lunch and milk program. A businessman stated that several parties had already called for milk entrepreneurs to assist the government in ensuring Prabowo's flagship program is successful. This source mentioned that the Husbandry and Animal Health Directorate General had already invited cattle entrepreneurs and milk producers to join the initiative. "They acknowledge that the supply to support the free milk program is still lacking," said this source.

Another organization that is also actively gathering milk producers is the Indonesia Food Security Review, an organization affiliated with Dirgayuza Setiawan, one of Prabowo's close associates. A source mentioned that Dirgayuza had resigned from his position as ID Food business director and would focus on preparing several of Prabowo's flagship programs. "They have also gathered milk producers on several occasions," said the source.

The organization is moving quickly. In March 2024, after Prabowo won the presidential election, the Indonesia Food Security Review officially announced it was joining the School Meals Coalition under the United Nations. This organization also routinely publishes studies on the importance of free school lunches.

Besides the supply issue, another matter being discussed by Prabowo's internal team is the distribution mechanism for free lunches and milk. The source mentioned that initially, there was a discussion about utilizing the network of drivers under Gojek Indonesia. However, the source said, challenges arose because Gojek only operates in major cities. "So this is still being discussed further," said the source.

[This content is provided by Tenggara Strategics in collaboration with The Jakarta Post to serve the latest comprehensive and reliable analysis on Indonesia's political and business landscape.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2024/06/05/analysis-prabowo-to-adopt-a-flexible-approach-to-the-free-school-meals-program.htm