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Interview with Rene McGuffin of the World Food Programme in Kenya

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The drought emergency that has been declared in Kenya arrives on top of previously existing problems: an AIDS epidemic, urban migration, and a lack of government resources to deal with these challenges. People who were already struggling to feed themselves because of high food prices have now been hit by maize shortages and drought. Nearly 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — on less than a dollar a day — and with inadequate access to food. 1.2 million children remain out of school despite the 2003 declaration by the Government of free primary education for all.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) runs school feeding programs to help impoverished children in Kenya. Rene McGuffin, a WFP program advisor, talks about how critical school feeding is for overcoming hunger and poverty in Kenya.

How many children benefit from the WFP School feeding programs in Kenya?

WFP Kenya is providing food assistance to 770,000 primary schoolchildren in more than 1,700 schools located in the remote, arid regions and the unplanned urban slums of Nairobi and Mombasa. Due to the drought and resulting food crisis, WFP is looking at scaling up the number of children it feeds by April 2009 in an effort to ensure that those children who might otherwise drop out of school to help their families during these difficult times remain in school.

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

Although progress has been made, there are significant regional disparities in access to social services and schooling across Kenya. In both the remote, arid districts and the urban slums, more than 67 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many on less than a dollar a day. Basic social services are grossly inadequate.

Chronic food insecurity and poverty reduces opportunities for children to complete primary education in many parts of Kenya. To support children in school, WFP launched a school feeding program in 1980 with an overall objective of supporting the Government’s goal of ensuring universal primary education and education for all by 2015.

The daily meal, mixed with oil and salt, provides the children with 703.25 calories, including 13.5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat necessary for their growth.

According to a WFP 2008 survey, the net enrollment rate for boys and girls has risen from 77% in 2002 to 92% in 2007, due in part to the Government of Kenya’s Free Primary School initiative, and in part to the provision of school meals. While gender ratios are below parity in all schools, meaning fewer girls are attending school than boys, the ratio is closer to parity in schools with school feeding. This suggests that school meals attract the more underprivileged female students to class. Attendance rates in WFP-assisted schools have increased to 89 percent, demonstrating that school feeding draws hungry children to school each day.

Teachers routinely cite school meals as having a positive effect on the ability of students to concentrate in the classroom, the duration of their attention spans, and their cognitive and learning abilities. Improving school enrollment has been cited as the single most effective child protection intervention, and school meals ensure that children in the impoverished slums come to class. Crime and violence are prevalent in the slums, and children are often the victims. One study found that primary school-aged girls were the most vulnerable, with a 60% likelihood of being victims of abuse and violence. High poverty levels in the slums expose children to sexual violence. Child prostitution is common and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is high. Providing a meal in school means that children are less likely to be roaming urban streets where they are subjected to violence.

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

WFP’s new five-year development program (2009-2013) has emphasized the need to hand the program over to the Government after 28 years of assistance. The Government’s 2008/2009 budget included $5 million USD for feeding an additional 550,000 children through a Home-Grown School Feeding Program, which brings school feeding and agricultural development together through local procurement, support of school gardens, and agricultural education in the classroom. This brings the total number of children targeted for school meals to 1.32 million.

During times of severe drought, WFP expands its school feeding program to hard-hit areas. Due to the threat of drought from little rain in the Eastern and Coast Provinces in 2008, an ongoing assessment will determine how many more children will benefit from school meals in 2009. Even without this expansion, nearly 63 percent of the children enrolled in primary schools are currently receiving food.

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

WFP Kenya’s school feeding program, like other programs around the world, relies entirely on voluntary contributions. Given competing priorities, including saving lives in emergencies, WFP Kenya advocates for funding from corporations and individuals, as well as governments, to reach the 770,000 children currently under its program. Additional support by the private sector would enable more children to be fed in school. Currently, WFP Kenya receives annual contributions from International Paper, Unilever, and individual donors, and would be pleased to welcome other partners.

The Government of Kenya, through the Kenya Education Sector Support Project (KESSP) and with support from the international donor community and the United Nations, has identified school feeding as an efficient and effective means of promoting access to basic education for all in the remote arid regions. While Kenya has made budget allocations to feed an additional 550,000 children under its Home-Grown School Feeding Program, the country continues to depend on aid, with external grants comprising five percent of total public revenue.

Significant grant financing will be required to support achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the near future, especially as the post-election crisis of 2008 eroded some of the gains that previously had been made. The Ministry of Education has the opportunity to utilize donor funding through the KESSP for school meals and would welcome any other support from the international community.

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

High food prices have caused the cost of feeding a child one meal each school day to increase from just 9 cents to 18 cents a day in Kenya. As a result, 2008 contributions only covered 50 percent of the previously identified requirements, and additional resources were required to reach all children. In an effort to address the impact of higher food prices, WFP headquarters allocated an additional $2 million to expand school feeding in Nairobi slums and in early childhood development centers (pre-school) in remote, arid districts. High food prices have had a disastrous effect on both the urban poor, who spend 60-80% of their income on food, and pastoralists in northern Kenya, where malnutrition rates among children under five is routinely above the international emergency threshold of 15 percent.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

Individuals, schools, and corporations interested in supporting school feeding can find information on how to donate online. If in the United States, you can find information through Friends of the World Food Programme. Both sites allow donations to be targeted directly to WFP’s operations in Kenya.

Since 2004, corporate partners like International Paper and Unilever have ensured that nearly 100,000 WFP-supported children in Kenya receive a hot, nutritious meal in the Nairobi slums and in the Masai region. By providing an incentive to come to school, these corporations are helping to build a brighter future for both the children and the country. These children, with the help of the school feeding program, will be the next generation of successful contributors to Kenyan society.

In addition, through the UK Really Good School Dinner campaign, school children across the UK raised funds for school meals in Kenya and other countries.

We are encouraging other corporations, schools, and partners to get involved by adopting a school or donating money for school meals. Cash and in-kind contributions to support the school feeding program are welcome.

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

Many children are frequently absent from school, drop out to look for food or income, or are simply too hungry to come to school. Even if they do come to school, hunger can diminish their ability to learn. These chronic problems are intensified during acute food shortages such as those caused by drought and other shocks. In Kenya, as in many other developing countries, school feeding increases the number of children enrolled, and encourages them to stay in school. Many times this is the only meal that these children have in a day.

Kenya is currently facing a multitude of challenges. Last month, the government declared food shortages as a national disaster, and announced that 10 million Kenyans were in need of food assistance. While a WFP-Government assessment on total needs is still being finalized, the government has indicated that as many as 850,000 additional children need school meals to keep them in class during the 2009 school year. As a result of the drought, many families resort to extreme measures, including pulling their children out of school to work, just so families can eat one meal a day. In schools where school feeding is offered, this is less likely to happen.

The high food prices that continue to plague Kenya have a direct impact on those living in urban slums, who spend 60-80 percent of their incomes on food. From December 2007 to December 2008, the price of maize (the main staple) increased by 100 percent, cooking fuel by 50 percent, and water by 114 percent in the urban markets.

School meals help get children in the Nairobi and Mombasa slums off of the dangerous streets and into classrooms, ensuring them least one hot, nutritious meal each day.

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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.
  • http://www.educationinsight.net Education Insight

    Thank God the governement of Kenya has extended the School Feeding program in these times of drought.

  • Ateenyi

    The existing challenges to educating Kenya’s rural children have sadly been compounded by the massive corruption in the Ministry of Education that has been recently exposed. The missing money and frozen donor funding certainly don’t augur for the country’s education sector and are likely to reverse gains made in eradicating illiteracy.

    Corruption certainly isn’t part of Kenya culture and the government officials under whose watch the funds disappeared should be called to account.

  • http://foodreviewkenya.com Flora

    well the system of school feeding program is very effective and if we can also apply it in Kenya especially the arid areas we shall be able to educate alot of people.

  • kenya

    well this is so informative,How can we as kenyan implement these strageties into our country?