The country of Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, has nearly two thirds of its population classified as poor according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). After suffering through a civil war during the 1990's after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Tajikistan now struggles with hunger and poverty. School feeding programs are critical if the nation's children are to overcome these daunting life challenges. In the following interview with AnneMarie van den Berg, WFP Deputy Country Director in Tajikistan, we will look at the importance of providing meals at school for children.
How many children are benefiting from the WFP school feeding programs within the country?
WFP started the school feeding program in Tajikistan in 1999 covering 5,000 school children. During the 2007-2008 academic year, WFP provided hot meals on a daily basis to 265,000 primary school children, while 105,000 secondary school girls received food to take home as a reward for good attendance. This school year, WFP will provide hot meals to an additional 100,000 primary school children, increasing the country-wide coverage to more than 50 percent of school children in grades 1 to 4.
The increase for the 2008-2009 school year is one of WFP's responses to the current food insecurity situation in Tajikistan: a recent assessment indicates that 34 percent of the rural population (1.7 million people) is food insecure. In the urban areas 37 percent of the population (0.5 million) is food insecure. The increased food insecurity is mostly due to high food prices compounded by the impact of the harsh winter in Tajikistan earlier this year. The objectives of the school feeding program have been expanded to also include its role as a food security safety net.
Discuss what effect the meals have on the children in terms of school attendance, performance, and nutrition.
The meals have a very positive effect on the children. First of all, the attendance rate of the children in schools where school feeding is provided is consistently high, almost 98 percent on average. Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enrollment rates for primary education dropped from 100 percent to about 70 percent in the country. In addition we also receive lots of reports from teachers and parents that the children are able to concentrate better and therefore learn more when they receive a hot meal in the school. While some of the children come to school after a breakfast of tea and a slice of bread, many of them come to school on an empty stomach, and the hot meal provided during the course of the morning helps the children immensely in alleviating their short term hunger and increasing their attention span to better focus on the lessons.