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Interview: Leo van der Velden, United Nations World Food Programme, Bhutan

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In this next interview in the “Ending World Hunger“ series, we will look at school feeding programs in Bhutan. Located between India and China, Bhutan is often victimized by natural disasters like flooding. The rainy season can even close road access to remote communities for up to six months.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is helping Bhutan eliminate hunger and poverty. According to WFP, “close to one-third of the population suffers from food insecurity.” School feeding programs are vital to changing this situation. The following is an interview with Leo van der Velden, the country director of the World Food Programme in Bhutan.

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

The World Food Programme (WFP) assists the Royal Government of Bhutan in its school feeding activities by providing two meals per day to 41,000 children studying in rural, remote boarding and selected day schools. Bhutan, roughly the size of Switzerland, is a rugged, mountainous kingdom with a population of some 670,000 scattered in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” The schools are mostly located in areas where drivable roads are absent. Children attending day schools walk 2-3 hours a day to get to school. Schools with low girls enrollment are also targeted with school meals.

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

Education in Bhutan is a success story. The net primary enrollment rate grew in ten years from some 53% in 1998 to 84% last year. WFP is proud to be part of this achievement. The attendance rate has been stable for a number of years – more than 95% for both boys and girls. During monitoring trips, WFP has observed that students come as early as 7 AM to school with their plates and cups for the WFP provided breakfast. They are also seen washing their hands, plates and cups diligently and getting ready for breakfast. However, challenges are still outstanding, as there are districts and groups of people well below the national enrollment levels. Further assistance can still make a difference, especially in regard to the Millennium Development Goal of “Education for All” in 2015.

School feeding has also strengthened performance. Children are more active in the classroom and tend to refrain from falling asleep. The children also take active participation in extra curricular activities, especially sports. Another positive indicator is that children are less likely to get sick after school feeding is incorporated.

School meals are composed of rice, maize grits, pulses and vegetable oil. This provides wholesome meals, and teachers report that the children come home from winter breaks looking pale and weak but become healthy and robust again while at school. This implies that the children eat a lot better at school.

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

In Bhutan, all basic education up to end of 8th grade is completely free, including boarding schools. Because the population is so scattered, one in four schools has boarding facilities. The Royal Government of Bhutan provides a stipend for the third meal in all boarding schools and recently took over all meals in class 11 and 12 from WFP. The Government is committed to take over WFP’s school feeding activities and in 2009 will also fully incorporate all three meals in boarding classes 9 and 10 in its stipend system.

The decrease in funding for school feeding has resulted in more narrow re-targeting of day schools for inclusion in the school feeding program. We have been forced to select only the neediest schools, a painful exercise, as there are so many other children in need. We had to decide between schools where children walk 2 hours or 4 hours to school. We had to decide between schools where 90% or 50% of children live in shacks near the school because home is too far away to commute everyday.

What would be the sources of funding for any expansion of the school feeding program? What has been the effect of rising food prices in this funding effort?

While the Royal Government of Bhutan is very committed to the school feeding project, it does not have yet adequate resources to nationalize completely the school feeding project.

The Government also has the intention to provide school meals to all rural day schools in the future. Their goal is to attract more kids to school as well as release parents from the burden of providing a pack-lunch everyday. With a strong response to high food prices from the international community, we hope that funding for the school feeding program will also increase. An investment in school feeding is an investment in the future.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

You can go directly to WFP’s website and donate online. There are also annual fund raising events like “Walk the World”, where money collected goes directly to under-funded school feeding programs. Furthermore, WFP Bhutan also assists schools with boarding facilities, kitchens, stores, fuel-efficient stoves and the introduction of school agricultural programs. Individual donors wishing to assist these non-food activities can also contact WFP Bhutan directly in Thimphu.

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

The WFP Country Office in Bhutan has national staff members that participated in school feeding programs when they attended school. They benefited from WFP during their school days and now they are with WFP working for school feeding. What more can I say regarding the importance of school feeding? Below is one staff member’s personal story:

Story worth Telling
As a student in Punakha, WFP Programme Officer Tashi Doma was a beneficiary of WFP’s school feeding program throughout her childhood years. She remembers trucks rolling into her school bringing bags marked with the WFP logo and the names of the various donor nations such as Japan, Australia, and Norway. She also fondly remembers the breakfast of bulgur wheat and milk, and dry fish on Wednesdays, back in the days when it was served once a week as a special lunch.

After graduating from college, Tashi became an employee of WFP’s School Feeding Program in Thimphu, and is now the most long-term and senior staff member in the entire office. According to Tashi, working for WFP comes natural for her; she can think and relate to the situations faced by WFP beneficiaries and the various schools it serves.

As a former beneficiary, WFP’s school feeding program is close to Tashi’s heart. She feels very fortunate to have the chance to repay WFP for giving her the opportunity to complete her education. National employees like Tashi have helped improve the implementation of school feeding in Bhutan. They enable students, especially girls, to receive an education and improve the quality of their lives.

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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.