The country of Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, has nearly two thirds of its population classified as poor according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). After suffering through a civil war during the 1990's after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Tajikistan now struggles with hunger and poverty. School feeding programs are critical if the nation's children are to overcome these daunting life challenges. In the following interview with AnneMarie van den Berg, WFP Deputy Country Director in Tajikistan, we will look at the importance of providing meals at school for children.
How many children are benefiting from the WFP school feeding programs within the country?
WFP started the school feeding program in Tajikistan in 1999 covering 5,000 school children. During the 2007-2008 academic year, WFP provided hot meals on a daily basis to 265,000 primary school children, while 105,000 secondary school girls received food to take home as a reward for good attendance. This school year, WFP will provide hot meals to an additional 100,000 primary school children, increasing the country-wide coverage to more than 50 percent of school children in grades 1 to 4.
The increase for the 2008-2009 school year is one of WFP's responses to the current food insecurity situation in Tajikistan: a recent assessment indicates that 34 percent of the rural population (1.7 million people) is food insecure. In the urban areas 37 percent of the population (0.5 million) is food insecure. The increased food insecurity is mostly due to high food prices compounded by the impact of the harsh winter in Tajikistan earlier this year. The objectives of the school feeding program have been expanded to also include its role as a food security safety net.
Discuss what effect the meals have on the children in terms of school attendance, performance, and nutrition.
The meals have a very positive effect on the children. First of all, the attendance rate of the children in schools where school feeding is provided is consistently high, almost 98 percent on average. Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enrollment rates for primary education dropped from 100 percent to about 70 percent in the country. In addition we also receive lots of reports from teachers and parents that the children are able to concentrate better and therefore learn more when they receive a hot meal in the school. While some of the children come to school after a breakfast of tea and a slice of bread, many of them come to school on an empty stomach, and the hot meal provided during the course of the morning helps the children immensely in alleviating their short term hunger and increasing their attention span to better focus on the lessons.
Providing rations for secondary school girls to take home has a positive effect on attendance, driving girls’ attendance rate up to 98 percent and leading to the completion of their secondary education.
What plans are there for making school meals available for all children?
With the current expansion of the program to 100,000 more school children in the 2008-2009 school year, WFP will cover more than 50 percent of the primary school children in schools in all 50 districts of the country. The program is implemented together with the Ministry of Education and the departments of education throughout the country. At the school level there are parent-teacher associations which ensure the smooth running of the project. They also contribute fresh vegetables and participate in the cooking and other activities to be carried out.
The new schools which are now included in the program are all located in areas which have very high levels of severe food insecurity as identified by a recent food security assessment in April 2008.
What would be the sources of funding for any expansion of the school feeding program?
WFP is entirely funded by voluntary contributions from donors, and we encourage donors to continue funding our operations in order for us to continue providing food to those most in need. In Tajikistan most of the funding for our programs comes from multilateral contributions, whereas we also receive funding from donor countries directly.
What has been the effect of high food prices on this funding effort?
Tajikistan is a landlocked country and a net importer of food, which means that the country has been particularly hard-hit by the high food and fuel prices. Prices of bread and vegetable oil have more than doubled since August 2007, and most other basic foods have increased by over 50 percent. Recently WFP announced the cash rollout of a USD 214 million package to provide critical assistance to those hardest hit by the food prices crisis. Tajikistan received USD 10 million from this package, which will help us support the national action plan and provide food to the primary school children and other vulnerable, food insecure people affected by the current crisis.
How can someone help the school feeding program?
Individuals can contribute to the school feeding program by visiting the WFP website. It only costs 25 US cents per day to feed a child in school, so even a small contribution will go a long way to providing a future to a child.