In many parts sub-Saharan Africa, 60 percent of children come to school in the morning without breakfast, if they attend school at all. Many suffer from health and developmental problems, including stunted growth. Exhausted from hunger and poor nutrition, they often have trouble paying attention and learning during class.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) provides school meals for about 20 million children in Africa. While some national governments, including in Côte d’Ivoire, have provided school meals for decades, the food, fuel, and financial crises of 2007–08 highlighted the role that school nutrition programs can play in not only improving education, health, and nutrition, but also providing a safety net for children living in poverty. For some children, these programs provide the only real meal of the day.
Improved school menus provide students with much-needed nutrition while also creating an incentive for both students and parents to keep up regular attendance. Some programs include a take-home ration, targeted specifically at improving the attendance of girls. In exchange for an 80-percent attendance rate for one month, for example, students are able to take home a jug of vegetable oil to their family. Students also often share the nutrition information they learn at school with family members, helping to improve the nutritional value of meals made at home.
Earlier this year, the Partnership for Child Development (PCD), in partnership with the WFP and with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched the Home Grown School Feeding (HGSF) program. HGSF, modeled in part after programs developed by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), works with governments to develop and implement school feeding programs, improving the diets and education of students while also creating jobs and supporting local agriculture.
Starting with five countries that were either already running school food programs or had demonstrated an interest in them and a capacity for implementation—including Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, and Ghana—HGSF hopes to create a bigger market for rural farmers through demand created by purchasing only locally grown and processed food for school meals.
“The definition of ‘local’ varies from country to country,” says Kristie Neeser, program coordinator at PCD. “Some schools keep their food purchasing within the local community and some keep their purchasing within the country. But what is most important is creating that relationship between the farmers and the government program.”
To best facilitate links between farmers and governments, HGSF works closely with the ministries of education to develop programs that will suit local needs and customs. In Ghana, for example, markets are run by “market queens,” women who purchase vegetables from farmers and then sell them to commercial buyers at markets. To avoid disrupting this system, HGSF works to incorporate the market queens with Ghana’s school purchasing process, instead of attempting to deal directly with the farmers, as programs in other countries often do.
Ultimately, HGSF hopes to work with 10 countries, transitioning each program to being fully government owned, funded, and implemented—creating a permanent safety net for school children and a dependable demand for local, small-scale, farmer-sourced produce.