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Interview: Damieta Gregório Mendes of the World Food Programme in Guinea Bissau

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The West African nation of Guinea Bissau is still reeling from the destruction caused by an internal conflict in the late 1990s. According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), “poverty, unemployment and social and economic problems aggravated by the crisis are causing nutritional problems among the most vulnerable population.”

Food and education for children are among the many steps needed for the rehabilitation of Guinea-Bissau. In the following interview with Damieta Gregório Mendes of the World Food Programme we will examine these vital school feeding programs.

How many children are benefiting from the WFP school feeding programs within the country?

For the academic year in 2007 and 2008, WFP Guinea-Bissau is feeding 105,014 children through school feeding programs.

Discuss what effect the meals have on the children in terms of school attendance, performance and nutrition?

As a result of our project, the attendance rate has increased for boys to 92% and for girls to 93%. Regarding nutrition, the meals served for children reduce their short term hunger. School meals also reduce gender disparities between boys and girls – now the ratio of girls to boys is about 1:1 in most regions.

Here's an anecdotal story on the improvement of nutrition which we got from Catholic Mission sisters. Prior to the initiation of the WFP school feeding project, teachers noticed that a majority of girls used to faint in the classroom. They wondered what was causing the problem. After the WFP project started, the phenomenon stopped. Teachers figured out that the girls were being severely affected due to the lack of meals taken before coming to school.

What plans are there for making school meals available for all children?

Our operations respond to food security by region. Thus, WFP has been focusing on targeted geographic areas subject to food insecurity. In addition, school meals have addressed the short-term food needs of vulnerable groups and primary school children living in food insecure rural areas where enrollment rates were low and drop-out high.

What would be the sources of funding for any expansion of the school feeding program?

The current program will expire on December 31, 2008. We are currently working with both our regional office and our headquarters to expand of the project for an additional two years.

What has been the effect of high food prices in this funding effort?

The new school year will start on October 2008. We wish to complete a more thorough survey on how the increase of food prices has been affecting family members. We know the price of rice alone has already increased more than 60%. Following the survey, the daily ration will likely increase. At the same time, we wish to encourage the school gardening and Food for Work (FFW) program with the World Bank to cope with the problem.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

People in the community can help by becoming more integrated in the school gardening project, which helps to improve the diet. Externally, we wish to ask other institutions to work closely with us to create a unified plan for the improvement of education.

Anything else you'd like to add about why you think school feeding is important for people to support.

Apart from the basic right of access to food, school feeding is very important to help promote education in general. Without this project, education in Guinea-Bissau would be more collapsed.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.