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Interview: Zahir Islam, Director of the UN World Food Programme’s School Feeding, Bangladesh

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Bangladesh is a country in Asia that is struggling with hunger and the effects of the soaring food prices. According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), “Approximately half of the population (63 million people) live below the food poverty line” and “dietary intakes of both children and adults are severely deficient in vitamins and minerals in particular iron, vitamin A and zinc.”

Natural disasters have occurred with such frequency in Bangladesh as to deeply worsen the cycle of poverty. School feeding programs are critical to Bangladesh and its quest to end hunger and poverty. The following is an interview with Zahir Islam, the director of the UN World Food Programme’s school feeding operations in Bangladesh.

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

WFP Bangladesh is currently assisting 600,000 primary schoolchildren in over 4,000 schools through the School Feeding programme under the Country Programme. The present coverage is inadequate compared to the total countrywide need of 20 million primary schoolchildren.

Given the positive impact of school feeding on learning, the coverage can be expanded with availability of funding from the donors.

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

The school feeding programme has demonstrated sustained results over the years. External evaluations of the school feeding programme have found that the activity produces positive results. A study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2003 found that School Feeding in Bangladesh:

• Raised gross school enrolment rates by 14.2%;
• Reduced the probability of dropping out of school by 7.5%;
• Increased school attendance by 1.43 days a month;
• Improved academic achievement by 15.7%; and
• The biscuits were the most important source of energy, protein and iron, after rice.

Another study undertaken by the Tufts University (USA) in 2004 reflected the following:

• Teachers reported that there had been a decrease in children who had difficultly concentrating in class.
• There was no evidence that the School Feeding biscuits were substitutes for home consumption of family food. Some parents reported that they no longer needed to give their children money for the Tiffin break (recess) representing a cash saving for the family.
• Importantly, there was no gender-based difference in the receipt or consumption of school feeding biscuits.

A nutritional survey 2007 of WFP Country Programme activities found that Food for Education also had a significant impact on child malnutrition:

Children in school feeding assisted schools are five times more likely not to suffer from anemia than children who are not assisted by school feeding.
The average hemoglobin concentration of children from FFE assisted schools is 11 percent higher than the average hemoglobin concentration among children from non-school feeding assisted schools.

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

We have been working very closely with the Government of Bangladesh for the implementation of the school feeding programme since 2001. The Government appreciates WFP managed school feeding model and is planning to implement the same model in a large scale under the Primary Education Sector Development Programme.

Approximately 20 million children require school feeding support in Bangladesh. WFP, in cooperation with the Government of Bangladesh, is making an effort to reach all the children through gradual expansion in the most poverty prone areas.

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?

Foreign donations are definitely vital for funding the expansion of school feeding programme. Administrative and cash/kind support from the Government of Bangladesh is instrumental.

A wave of food-price inflation has drastically increased the levels of hunger and poverty in the country. The phenomenon is affecting everyone on the planet- but the poorest are hardest hit. Rising food prices are affecting this funding effort very critically because the school feeding provides food to the children every school day. Current cost is US$22 child/year, while in the last year it was only US$13.20 child/year. We need almost a doubling of funding to continue feeding the current caseload.

However, our current pipeline situation is terrible due to the skyrocketing prices of food. To avoid the pipeline break, we have to spend a lot of time negotiating with the potential donors and the Government of Bangladesh for additional funding.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

For just US$22 a year (240 school days), you can help WFP provide a child with fortified biscuits at school. Please be part of the solution.

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

School feeding creates a new cycle: reducing hunger to improve education and improving access to education to reduce hunger. The school feeding formula is simple: Food attracts children. An education broadens their options to help lift them out of poverty.

It is evident that the provision of fortified biscuits improves students’ dietary intake, mitigates short-term hunger and micronutrient deficiencies and as a result improves children’s cognition and ability to learn and concentrate.

Provision of a nutritious snack acts as an incentive for enrollment and retention in schools. The biscuits will offset opportunity costs and enable the ultra-poor families to send their children to school.

The School Feeding programme has the strongest effect on education and in addressing social vulnerability. School feeding is cost effective, easy to manage and less of an administrative burden on the teachers, community and the local structures.

School feeding transforms schools into potential centers for addressing a range of children’s needs. It has a set of practical complementary activities under ‘essential package’. Complementary activities include; systematic de-worming, community mobilisation on health, hygiene, sanitation, nutrition, education, school vegetables gardening and provision of safe drinking water, awareness on HIV/AIDS, disaster risk reduction and cause and effects of climate change. The programme is Government- owned, community led and based on partnerships with UN agencies, and international and national NGOs.

School feeding helps building literate society and spurs economic growth. Educated individuals earn higher wages and earn more when self-employed. Investment in education yields high returns both for the individual and the society. These returns are highest in low-income countries like Bangladesh.

School feeding facilitates addressing gender equality, encouraging parents to send both their daughters and sons to school. The programme supports local farmers. The food is purchased from local, small-scale farmers for use in feeding programme and in support of families and local economies.

In emergency situations school feeding support goes directly to children and ensures that generations do not miss out on an education because of a crisis.
Therefore, a consistent flow of funding is required to continue feeding the poor primary schoolchildren in Bangladesh.

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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://geocities.com/khisa_k/ Kanchan Khisa

    The article has very much correctly underlined the importance of school meals for addressing the nutritional deficiencies and the early education simultaneously. This intervention is very effective for a food deficit country like Bangladesh. I think individuals, reach countries, international donor organizations should be proactive in addressing it and should come forward with support for building a better world together.

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