Kenya schools take on hunger with student lunches
Students line up for lunch at Suguta Marmar Primary School in rural Kenya, perhaps the only meal they will have all day.
The food comes from the United Nations-funded World Food Program, with help from such sources as Unilever, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and national governments. The Kenyan government spent $5 million in the 2008-09 school year to get daily lunches to 550,000 students.
“The school meals program has yielded great Kenyans," said Nur Guleid, head of the school meals unit at Kenya's Ministry of Education. "Paul Tergat, the world-renowned marathon record holder and a WFP ‘ambassador against hunger,’ is a beneficiary of the program. It is important to give other children a chance to excel in life."
Officials said many children stay home when they don't get a school meal in Kenya. WFP statistics from 2008 showed that student attendance rates rose to 89 percent as a result of the school meals program.
With a U.N. plan to cut back, Kenyan officials have had to scramble to ramp up the government's involvement in the program to keep it going, Guleid said. WFP plans to cut back its help by 50,000 students every year for the next five years.
“The program targets the poorest food deficit districts in the country," Guleid said. "Most children in such districts can not access education if the school meals program is not active."
Kenya officials are working directly with 30 elementary schools to get them to grow their own gardens under the "Healthy Learning" program funded in part by a Belgian non-profit group. The government also is appealing to international corporations such as Unilever and to farmers in the surrounding communities to keep school lunches going for a reasonable price.
With a grant of up to $3,334, students, teachers and community members in the "Healthy Learning" program do gardening, keep cows, keep bees, learn how to harvest rainwater and do various agroforestry projects.
Milimani Primary elementary school is one school benefiting from the program.
“4K club members take care of the garden, where they grow kale, maize, beans and avocado fruit trees. We are trying to provide the children with a balanced diet,” said head teacher Fredrick Lenturkan,
Another school in the district cooks porridge with milk for students while also managing a successful livestock project in the school compound.
“Every day, milk is added to the pupils' porridge, except on Wednesdays when the pupils take milk tea,” said Thomas Lenkirikai, the Bawaa Primary School's head teacher.
Other "Healthy Learning" projects at the 500-student school include a garden, water harvesting and a hand-washing program.
According to the headmaster, the livestock project made almost $1,100, which was used to buy desks for the students. The school also has expanded its livestock breeding services to the surrounding community, raising more money to be used for future school meals programs.
Suguta Marmar Primary School and others also are taking the school meals program one step further -- to the learning environment. Students and teachers have started planting trees at the school compound, many of which offer shade and act as windbreaks in the hot and dusty schoolyard.
The school also holds gardening competitions, said Julius Lesuuda, the school's head teacher.
"Competition is healthy," Lesuuda said. "Teachers not only supervise the pupils, they also take care of their garden in front of the staff room.”
Kenya's Ministry of Education and its agriculture, public health and sanitation, water and irrigation and livestock development departments have partnered to get the programs going. Officials said Kenya is working to meet U.N. Millennium Development Goals to reduce hunger by half and achieve universal primary education by 2015.
But unpredictable weather has presented challenges across the country. Both drought and floods have hit different parts of the Kenya recently. And rustlers in the Samburu region have stolen cattle from residents whose children go to Suguta Marmar school.
“Many challenges exist," Guleid said. "We have not lost hope. Through collaboration, I believe we can still achieve a lot."