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Interview with Hakan Tongul, UN World Food Programme Assistant Country Director for Myanmar

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Devastated by the cyclone of May 2008, Myanmar is a nation in desperate need of assistance to recover. According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), “The hardest hit villages saw families lose all their farming assets, together with their houses and food stores for the rest of the year.” In Myanmar the World Food Programme helps children and their families by providing take-home rations at school. In the following interview with Hakan Tongul, WFP Assistant Country Director for Myanmar, we will look more closely at this Food for Education program.

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

In Myanmar close to a quarter of a million primary school children benefit from food assistance programs. 241,258 students attend 1,687 schools in three specific areas: Northern Rakhine State by the Bangladesh border, Magway Division in the central dry zone, and Shan State by the Thai-Chinese border received food assistance in 2007-08. Students come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Primary schools teach in different languages such as Chinese, Shan, Kachin and Wa, reflecting the rich cultural make-up of Myanmar.

The current academic year began in June and the first distributions will take place at the end of July. Food assistance is channeled through a take-home ration program called Food for Education, where regularly attending primary students receive take-home rations of rice on a monthly basis.

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

The Food for Education program in Myanmar aims at increasing enrollment and attendance among primary students. By providing 10 kilograms of rice to each primary student who attends at least 80% of the school days in a given month, the program ensures that poor families are able to send their children to primary school. The rice incentive has maintained attendance at 93% with enrollment rates of 73% in the targeted project areas. These high percentages ensure that poor vulnerable families are able to send their children to school and build a better future. However, when there are shortages in donor funding, such as in this academic year, WFP is unable to provide rice. This adversely affects families' abilities to send their children to school.

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

In Myanmar WFP does not undertake any institutional feeding programs, hence, the food support cannot be defined as “school feeding” but rather a "food for education" program. It is based on the objective of increasing both enrollment and attendance rates in the targeted poor vulnerable village schools.

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

Normally, in the long term, governments and local authorities would take over the school feeding programs. However, there are currently no school feeding programs in Myanmar. In order to start up a school feeding program it would necessarily involve engaging closely with the Ministry of Education, hence, the Myanmar regime. For the time being this is not an avenue that WFP seeks to pursue.

What has been the effect of rising food prices on this funding effort?

WFP receives resources from its donors for food assistance programs in Myanmar. As local fuel and food prices have increased dramatically since the beginning of 2008, less and less food can be bought with the same level of resources. WFP Myanmar has seen its budget increase by 23% in 2008 alone, resulting in a need to request a quarter more in resources just to support the planned food programs within Myanmar. Unless renewed donor funding is received, many primary students will be unable to continue their valuable primary education.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

By supporting education initiatives like ours through donations. You can make a donation to the WFP online or you can mail donations to:

Friends of the World Food Program, Inc.
1819 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036

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

Investment in education has been proven to break the vicious poverty cycle. Any support that ensures that disadvantaged children from poor vulnerable families can go to school and hope for a better future absolutely needs to be carried out. Poorer families truly value education, though they usually cannot afford to send their children to school due to the cost of fees, textbooks and uniforms. A 22 pound ration of rice can be all a family needs to make it possible for its children to attend school. Therefore, it is very important to support education through school feeding and food for education programs in order to achieve a better livelihood in the future.

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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.
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