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Interview: Jakob Mikkelsen of the UN World Food Programme in Ethiopia

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Imagine being a farmer in Ethiopia trying to grow enough food to support your family. A massive drought hits, ruining your crops. Livestock in your village lie dead in the fields from disease brought on by the excessive heat. After the drought finally ends, it is soon followed by another. Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has been hard hit recently by repeated droughts. Many families have lost their livestock and are unable to support themselves. This tragedy has been compounded by the "silent tsunami" of high food prices which struck in 2008.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) recently reported that drought and high food prices have pushed 12 million people into hunger. For struggling families, knowing that their child is ensured a meal at school is an important safety net in times of crisis. As part of a long-term strategy to eliminate the high poverty rate in the country, school feeding is essential. The World Food Programme is working to help make sure every child in Ethiopia can receive a school lunch. Jakob Mikkelsen, a WFP representative in Ethiopia, talks about the importance of school feeding.

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

WFP currently supports the Ethiopian Ministry of Health in providing school meals to 414,078 school children in six regions of the country (Afar, Amhara, Oromiya, Southern People’s Region, Somali, and Tigray), encompassing 130 districts and 770 schools. WFP and the Ministry of Education are planning to scale up the program in the Afar region this year.

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

The average number of children enrolled in schools with school feeding programs increased by 7% from 2006 to 2007. The average attendance rate of WFP-assisted schools was 91.5% in 2007, which was above WFP’s goal of 90%. The focus on girls' education has led to an increase in enrollment and attendance rates for girls. The ratio of girls to boys enrolled in school increased by 7% from 2006 to 2007. Furthermore, the drop-out rate is lower in schools that have school feeding programs than the average in schools nationwide. The average drop-out rate nationwide is 11.25% for girls and 12.26% for boys, as compared to rates of 9% for girls and 11% for boys in WFP-assisted schools (2005/2006 Ministry of Education annual statistical abstract).

WFP implemented “Essential Package” activities in 2007 at more than 100 schools supported by school feeding. The “essential package” consists of activities such as training on de-worming, school gardens, and health and nutrition education.

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

WFP is involved in a School Health and Nutrition Task Force, which is assisting the Ministry of Education in designing a strategic framework for school health and nutrition. WFP has lined up workshops and other activities for stakeholders in Ethiopia, advocating for a school meal for every Ethiopian child attending school.

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

The Children in Local Development (CHILD)/Food for Education (FFE) program in Ethiopia is in a very fortunate funding position this year. We have secured enough resources for the coming school year (September 2008 – June 2009) and three-quarters of the resources required for the next school year (September 2009 – June 2010) based on annual commitments from Canada, a three-year commitment from the McGovern-Dole Food For Education Program (U.S.), and private funding from various corporations, such as YUM! Brands, and other smaller private donors.

How have high food prices impacted funding of school feeding programs?

The cost of running the program has increased by 50 percent since early 2007. Therefore, WFP either has to raise resources by an additional 50 percent, or do less with the same amount of money. However, it should be noted that the actual funding crisis for CHILD/FFE came before the rising food/fuel prices really affected the program, as the Resource Allocation to Ethiopia's Country Program was reduced by 43% from 2006 to 2007. This resulted in a significant reduction of the CHILD/FFE program from supporting 653,000 school children to only 378,000 school children. The program is now recovering and currently reaching 414,078 children. The Country Program plan is to support 438,000 school children this year.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

Although the funding looks very good at the moment, a program like CHILD/FFE needs multi-annual commitments and funding in order to ensure continuity of the program and achieve results. Therefore, it is important to continue raising funds for 2009 in order to ensure that the program is sustained at current levels.

Secondly, the CHILD initiative needs good partnerships to help provide Essential Package elements. Therefore, inviting interested organizations to partner with WFP and Ministry of Education to deliver Essential Package services would be of great support.

Contributions can be made through the WFP web site (and, in the United States, through Friends of the World Food Program).

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

Supporting school feeding programs helps children get an education in a healthy and child-friendly school environment. It is the best way to ensure a future generation of productive adults.

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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.