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Interview: Richard Ragan, United Nations World Food Programme Country Director for Nepal

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Nepal is a country recovering from a civil war and a series of natural disasters. According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), “Most families survive as subsistence farmers with 24 percent of the population living on less than US$1 per day. Development and humanitarian relief efforts remain challenged by a new wave of civil unrest and violence in the southern districts.”

School feeding programs are vital to Nepal’s recovery. In the following interview with Richard Ragan, World Food Programme country director for Nepal, we discuss school feeding and its status in Nepal.

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

WFP provides fortified meals to 180,000 children in more than 2,200 schools in some of the most remote areas of Mid- and Far-Western Nepal. Chronic malnutrition rates in these areas are as high as 60 percent, which in most countries is sufficient to trigger an emergency response.

We also believe it is critical for girls to be educated, which unfortunately is not always a priority in Nepal. To provide that opportunity, we offer an additional incentive to families sending their girls to school – a monthly take-home ration of cooking oil. This helps offset the ‘loss of hands’ at home so that girls can attend school instead of being kept at home to perform household chores.

Because “take home rations” have proved so effective, we’re piloting the initiative in other parts of the country. We’re providing the monthly take-home ration of cooking oil to 50,000 girls in districts bordering India, where girls’ enrollment rates in schools are very low.

We also provide deworming tablets to children in school feeding programs to help their bodies better absorb the micronutrients they so desperately need to grow and learn.

In total, nearly 500,000 children and their families benefit from WFP food assistance under this program.

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

In Nepal, school feeding programs serve as a magnet to draw children to school, improving their ability to learn and concentrate. We also find it’s an effective tool for increasing access to education and improving the nutritional status of children.

Because our school feeding programs are implemented in some of the poorest, most food-insecure communities, WFP food provided to children at school may be the most nutritious meal they receive that day.

In schools with WFP school feeding:
• On average, girls’ attendance rates have increased by 27 percent.
• Average girls enrollment has increased by 52 percent.

• Both children and teachers have reported improvements in cognitive and learning abilities.

Aside from these well-known statistics, an even more compelling example of school feeding’s effectiveness is the recent success of Nimdoma Sherpa. A former school feeding beneficiary herself, she just summited Mount Everest as part of the most successful female expedition in the mountain’s history.

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

We estimate that nearly 2 million children go to school hungry in Nepal each day. Nepal’s children have some of the worst nutrition statistics in the world. One in two children are stunted and 39 percent are underweight. Acute malnutrition rates are now rising and are as high as 20 percent in the districts bordering India.

Unfortunately, decreases in funding for school feeding programs over the last few years have forced us to reduce the number of children receiving school meals by half. This is particularly worrying as the areas we work in continue to face serious food insecurity because of drought conditions. Families there will also have to struggle with the impact of the escalating global food crisis – skyrocketing prices for food and fuel. School feeding programs provide a vital safety net to children during such periods.

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?

Nepal’s economy has not kept up with many of its Asian neighbors. Unfortunately, there are few private partnerships that we could leverage in a big way to help support our school feeding activities. The government of Nepal is piloting a project in five remote districts where it provides money to schools to manage their own school feeding programs. This is a promising development, but the government has limited funds and the program currently covers only about 25,000 children.

As the international community responds to the global food crisis, I hope it will translate into more support for school feeding programs that cost very little – just 25 cents a day feeds a child at school – but provide incredible benefits to children. School feeding can transform their lives in fundamental ways – by ensuring they grow into healthy and productive adults.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

Individuals can of course go to WFP’s website and donate online. As businesses, foundations and governments consider how to respond to the global food crisis, I hope they will increase their support for WFP school feeding programs – one of the most cost-effective ways to immediately protect the health of children and invest in the future as these children turn into healthy, productive citizens.

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

I think a picture is worth a thousand words.

Former WFP school feeding beneficiary climbs Everest.

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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.