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Interview: Purnima Kashyap of the World Food Programme in Zambia

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Zambia, ranked 165th on the Human Development Index, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Zambia’s population of 12.8 million is faced with one of the highest adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world (16.5%).

The recurrent droughts and floods experienced in recent years, particularly in southern Zambia – Eastern, Southern, Western and parts of Lusaka Provinces – have also resulted in extreme fluctuations in the production levels of maize and other staples, leading to a massive reduction in food and nutrition security. This, coupled with the steep rise in food and energy prices, has caused increases in malnutrition rates as signaled by the in-depth Vulnerability Assessment Report of the Zambia Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZVAC) in June 2008. Global acute malnutrition (GAM) rates have risen 7.7 percent, on an upward trend towards emergency levels.

Despite the Zambian government's policy of free education, 32% of the population above fifteen years old is unable to read or write. One of the main reasons school-age children in Zambia do not go to school is poor access to food and other school requisites. The number is steadily increasing. Dropout and repetition rates also compromise the efficiency and effectiveness of the school system. In 2006, the primary school completion rate was only 43.1% with an annual increase of 6.3% percent.

School feeding programs provide a vital safety net for children. Providing nutritious food at school is a simple but effective way to improve literacy rates and help poor children break out of poverty. In this interview with Purnima Kashyap of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) we will look at the status of school feeding in Zambia.

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

The World Food Programme and the Ministry of Education take a holistic view to solving the problem of children who are both hungry and in need of education. WFP has supported a school feeding programme in Zambia since 2003.

As of 2008, WFP provides hot nutritious porridge [made up of locally produced Corn Soya blend and vegetable oil] to 250,000 children in over 800 schools situated in the most drought-prone and food-insecure areas with low educational indicators and high HIV/AIDS prevalence. Children in all targeted schools receive the porridge upon arrival at school every day. Also, over 28,000 households are benefiting from take-home ration support, where children bring home food to share with their families. This is meant to encourage households to host orphans and vulnerable children and send children to school.

The school feeding activity in Zambia follows the essential package model, which includes the provision of adequate water and sanitation facilities, de-worming, and environmental sustainability initiatives. These facilities are complemented by the Ministry of Education and other local and international partners.

Community mobilization for the preparation of the porridge in schools has greatly enhanced community participation in overall school-based development activities.

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

In Zambia, school feeding programs are an effective way to attract children to school. On a full stomach, children are able to concentrate on learning and perform better. The school feeding programme has also been instrumental in convincing parents to send their children to school. Many orphans and vulnerable children who would have otherwise not attended school are sent by parents because households receive take-home rations.

The following are the achievements of WFP school feeding intervention, thus far:

  • a 35% increase in attendance of boys and girls in WFP assisted schools
  • on average, the enrollment rate has increased by 70% since inception.
  • the ratio of girls to boys enrolled, retained, and completing school in WFP-assisted schools changed slightly from 1:1 to 1:1.03.
  • orphans and vulnerable children from take-home beneficiary households were more likely to attend schools.
  • the take-home ration component is improving overall household well-being.

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

68% of the population of Zambia is estimated to be in poverty, with 53% considered extremely poor. 49% of children are stunted, indicating chronic malnutrition. Poverty and food insecurity are widespread in rural and urban areas, and the country remains extremely vulnerable to recurring natural disasters.

The impact of HIV/AIDS has contributed to the high number of orphans and vulnerable children, estimated at one million, of whom 10% do not go to school, and many of whom are looked after by elderly grandparents.

Research also shows that orphans living with extended families or in foster care can be prone to discrimination, which includes limited access to health, education, and social services. The high numbers of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS,who need support and care have diminished the caring and coping mechanisms of the traditional extended family systems.

The total number of primary school age children in Zambia currently stands at 2,736,365, of whom 11% (302,175) are out of school. The completion rate for primary education in food-insecure areas is as low as 63%. WFP is currently assisting only about 250,000 learners (9%).

The factors stated above highlight the need for making school lunches available to all children. However, the Zambian government does not have the resources, financial or human, to be able to do this. Therefore WFP and the Zambian government are looking to other models, such as homegrown school feeding, that will encourage communities to take responsibility for feeding their own children. Hopefully, these models will provide a more sustainable means of ensuring that children have a meal each day at school.

As part of WFP’s commitment to handing over the school feeding programme to the government, WFP aims for a "staged" process that allows a reasonable amount of time to concretize government inputs and management procedures.

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

Government financial commitment and established budget lines facilitate WFP’s exit programmes. When the government contributes financially to school feeding programs from the beginning, it is easier to secure the resources necessary for an eventual takeover by the government. WFP will work with government to decrease the role of food and external assistance, and increase institutional support for the school feeding programme.

Considering the existence of favorable agro-ecological conditions and a good policy environment in Zambia, WFP believes that there is plenty of opportunity for the government to undertake a homegrown school feeding initiative. There is obviously a need to advocate for sustaining the school feeding activity through locally produced foods and successful integration of the initiative with the national priorities highlighted in Zambia’s fifth national development plan. However, the government will need external assistance to enable effective functioning of the homegrown school feeding concept as a food safety-net programme.

In Zambia, prices of maize and other staples have risen by over 25% and fuel by over 37% since January 2007. These increases already pose problems for the food-insecure, both in urban areas and remote rural areas where production costs and market prices are further increased by higher transportation costs. The situation is so serious that earlier in the year the President constituted an inter-ministerial committee to look into the effects and causes of the rising food prices.

The impact of soaring food prices has directly affected the school feeding programme in Zambia, compelling WFP to reduce the ration size just in order to reach the children who are already enrolled in the school feeding programme. In relation to this, WFP Zambia drafted a proposal to look for additional funding to respond to the increasing needs of vulnerable children.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

The donor community must advocate and support the government/WFP school feeding initiative in order to provide a food safety net for school-age children and also achieve their educational goals.

Apart from the mechanisms that allow individuals to donate to WFP online, WFP Zambia would like to encourage people to donate directly to the school feeding programme in Zambia. We also hope that school feeding interventions will benefit from resources made available as the international community responds to the global food crisis. Partnership networks to advocate for school feeding need be engaged and developed at local, regional, and national levels.

The annual Walk the World campaign is another venue to support the school feeding program. It has demonstrated that private sector support has a huge untapped potential for mobilization of resources.

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

Many Zambian children, especially from rural areas, go without a meal in the morning. They walk great distances to go to school, and when they finally arrive they are hungry and listless. They find it difficult to concentrate. Many other children cannot enroll at all, being forced instead to work, look for food, or help with family chores. School becomes less of a priority. Even when they do enroll, many are frequently absent, reducing their learning capacity and academic performance.

Zambia has one of the highest proportions of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in the world. The number of such orphans was estimated in 2007 to have reached one million. In the absence of formalized government social protection programs, those food-insecure households hosting orphans and vulnerable children are at extreme risk of losing livelihood assets or utilizing negative coping strategies.

WFP’s school feeding activity in Zambia helps fulfill this vital social-safety-net function and is therefore a viable tool for helping poor children go to school and building a literate society.

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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.