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Interview: David Parra, World Food Programme Officer, Colombia

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Colombia has suffered through a decades-long conflict between the government and anti-government insurgent groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The anti-government forces are heavily involved in drug trafficking.

Children are the hardest hit by the conflict and poverty in the country. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) runs school feeding programs to help the children of Colombia. David Parra, a WFP officer in Colombia, discusses these life-changing programs for children.

Since 2002, more than 1 million people have been added to the estimated 2.5 million already displaced in Colombia. The conflict, which has been ongoing for over 40 years, has led to an increase in individual displacement and to the expansion of the conflict itself, creating a complex pattern of old and new areas of expulsion and of reception.

Almost 80% of internally displaced people (IDPs) temporarily settle in shantytowns on the outskirts of cities. The tensions between the IDPs and the communities that receive them have been increasing, as the influx of IDPs puts a greater demand on the limited resources of the community. IDPs compete for low-skill jobs, mostly in the informal sector, which in turn lowers wages that are low to begin with, and leads to exploitation.

Approximately 27 million Colombians are poor, and 10 million (2.8 million of these IDPs) live below the extreme poverty line. According to a joint evaluation carried out in 2004 by WFP and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), monthly income for IDP households varies between 30 and 60 US dollars, which is equivalent to about 42% of the minimum national wage. Two thirds of IDPs live in substandard housing without access to basic sanitary services.

More than 48% of IDPs are children between five and 14-years-old, and it is estimated that a high percentage of the displaced population is under 18 years old. Indicators on school enrolment for displaced children are diverse. It is estimated that between 24% (UNICEF) and 59% (IOM) of all displaced children do not attend school or have not received proper education after their families were forced into displacement.

Of those that do attend, 60% drop out between the ages of six and seven, mainly for economic reasons. Thirty percent of displaced girls between the ages of 13 and 19 are already mothers or are pregnant, 56% have not completed elementary school, and 54% of displaced households are headed by women. These indicators lead to the conclusion that it is essential to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced population in Colombia based on food assistance during the recovery phase.

WFP-supported School Feeding as part of an Integrated Response

School feeding is part of that humanitarian assistance. It helps to improve literacy rates and to break the cycle of poverty. School feeding contributes to the development of the necessary human infrastructure needed to develop the country.

According to a study carried out by WFP in 2004, only 37% of displaced households stated that their child received food at school. School feeding provides a healthy meal (lunch), which reduces hunger during the child’s school day. It also provides an incentive for families to encourage regular school attendance for their children; that is to say, it reduces the opportunity cost of sending their children to school.

In this way, the program contributes to the overall improvement of school performance, reduces hunger in the short term, and provides ways to augment the consumption of micronutrients, which are necessary for healthy growth. Overall objectives are to increase school attendance and enrollment, and to reduce school dropout rates.

How many children are benefiting from the WFP School Feeding programs within the country?

The main WFP activity in Colombia is Assistance to Persons Displaced by Violence, which started in April 2008. With the attention provided by this program, we have assisted 192.532 children in school age, in 22 of the country’s 33 departments.

The children we assist in our School Feeding Programs are boys and girls whose families have been forced to abandon their homes due to violence, and other children in vulnerable conditions. They are provided with snacks and lunches served in appropriate school canteens, in 1,649 schools countrywide, with the support of a large network of implementing partners who make our work possible.

Likewise, some 175,275 children were assisted during 2007.

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

We have proven that our food assistance activities to the highly vulnerable internally displaced children at nutritional risk have various positive effects on their lives:

• Our School Feeding Program helps to improve literacy rates and to break the cycle of poverty. School Feeding also contributes to the development of the necessary human infrastructure needed for Colombia’s development.

• In the country, children of poor families have been found to often interrupt regular educational processes. The provision of school meals is an enormous incentive that fosters school attendance, and at the same time helps to avoid labor and sexual exploitation, street begging, and child recruitment by illegal armed groups.

• Improvement of sanitation facilities and simple good practices such as hand washing reduce the risk of spreading diseases among the children, and at the same time contributes to enhanced nutritional status. WFP aims to improve the quality of basic sanitation facilities as part of an integrated assistance package under the school feeding initiative.

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

In the short term, our initiatives for making school meals available for all children directly support ongoing efforts of the government through the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) on the national level, municipalities at the local level, and NGOs and other institutions that assist people affected by violence in Colombia.

As you know, appropriate child nutrition at early age guarantees that children will have full development of their capacities when they attend school. In order to achieve this goal, we are working with local governments to formulate effective strategies for eradication of children undernutrition.

We have also established strategic alliances with actors of the private sector, in order to make school feeding a reality among vulnerable groups, and to improve attention coverage.

Likewise, in the medium and long term, WFP advocates (along with other UN partners such as UNICEF) to create the necessary legal frameworks and funding allocations to support and expand school feeding programs, in order to reach 100% of the vulnerable population.

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

Funding of an expanded school feeding program would have to be covered by three different main actors.

1. The government: by assigning financial resources from the state budget. The commitment for the eradication of children undernutrition is evidenced in the coordinated work with local governments to formulate effective nutritional programs, with WFP as a main partner.

2. Private sector: Through the assignation of a share of their ´social responsibility program´ resources to school feeding activities. In this way, the private sector is guaranteeing the recognition of clients and partners, which derives in a better affiliation level of the consumers to the brand. Also, this would contribute to win the battle against child undernutrition, because it is an opportunity to provide assistance programs for more and more vulnerable children in Colombia.

3. National and international NGOs: by assigning their resources in accordance with national school feeding plans, developing a wide net of efforts that contribute more effectively in the eradication of child undernutrition, improvement of literacy rates and increase of school enrolment levels.

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

The increase in food prices has caused a decrease in the amount of food purchased to assist children, including school feeding and nutritional recovery activities. This has forced WFP to intensify resource mobilization efforts; convincing donors to provide additional funding in order compensate the suffered losses.

The impact of soaring food prices in Colombia is aggravated by the fact that different commodity sectors have been affected by the reduction of commercial opportunities with countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as by high taxes.

According to WFP monitoring reports, displaced families living in peri-urban slums are coping with the increased price of staple foods by falling into increasingly heavy debt with local shops keepers and by purchasing smaller-sized rations of other non-WFP commodities, thus increasing the already high level of household expenditures on food and decreasing the quality and quantity of food consumed. The end result of this is increased risk of malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable groups such as young children and pregnant and lactating women.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

Within Colombia, anyone can take part in WFP´s School Feeding Program, and not only by the providing private donations. In fact, civic participation begins from the moment the individual becomes aware that proper nutrition during school age is an investment for the future of the country.

At a more operational level, citizens can take part through the creation of civil groups willing to assist children in the school canteens. In fact, in Colombia, several WFP implementing partners are School Parents´ Associations.

Another form of providing operational support is by informing displaced people about the institutions where they can receive assistance and the benefits they are entitled to.

At the community, regional, national, and global level, anyone can contribute to WFP through Friends of WFP, a US-based not-for-profit organization.

Food Force is an entertaining and challenging interactive video game created specifically for those who want to take the first step in ending world hunger by learning about what we do, how we do it, and what we aim to achieve through our efforts worldwide. A new version in Spanish was recently launched and is already available for Latin-American users.

Free Rice allows individuals of any age to test their vocabulary (in several different languages) and general knowledge, while contributing grains of rice to WFP school feeding projects.

For general information anyone can vist WFP (Spanish language version) to raise their awareness of why there is an urgent need to actively support WFP efforts to combat hunger across the globe.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about why you think school feeding is important for people to support?

We recognize School Feeding as a catalyst that consolidates activities for confronting the devastating effects of poverty and conflict on the lives and futures of boys and girls.

The school feeding program, as well as other educational and nutritional support programs in Colombia must be considered a means to re-establish the rights of children. The program is part of the state’s obligation to guarantee child protection in line with the current Colombian National Code of Infancy and Adolescence.

Food for a Better Life

David is seven-years-old. He is attending second grade at the “Concentración Educativa El Salvador”, a small school located in El Pozón, a poor and marginal area located in Cartagena, Colombia.

David’s neighborhood is mainly inhabited by displaced people from different regions of Colombia – people from Chocó, from Antioquia, from Bolivar, from everywhere. David knows he is displaced, but he doesn’t remember the time when he and his family came to Cartagena. He says he was too small when his parents decided to flee because situation in Corozal, his hometown, wasn’t very safe for them.

His mother is always looking for a job. Sometimes she finds short shifts as a maid, but this is very unusual. Most of the time she is at home taking care of David and his brother and sister.

His father has an informal job at Cartagena’s market. He moves bulks from one truck to another. Work is hard and pay is low. In a good day he can make two or three dollars, but normally after a 12-hour shift he barely receives one dollar.

But David is happy. He enjoys going to school every day, because in the school he can play and learn, he has a lot of friends and best of all, and he and his 110 schoolmates receive a nice meal every day, thanks to the WFP School Feeding Program.

David knows that with education everything is possible. That’s why he goes neat and clean to classes every morning, and his mom is proud of him!

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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.