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School meals are generally credited with increasing school enrolment, attendance, and retention rates.

Interview: Ismail Omer of the United Nations World Food Programme in Ghana

Ghana is touted as one the few African countries which has made significant progress in reducing poverty and undernourishment over the past two decades. Despite these impressive results, more than a quarter of its population still lives below the national poverty line, and economic improvements remain unevenly distributed geographically. Poverty remains particularly high in the rural areas and in Ghana’s three northern regions where between 52 and 88 percent of the people are poor.

As part of poverty reduction measures, the Government introduced some safety-net programs to cushion its most vulnerable citizens. Notable among these was the Ghana School Feeding Program (GSFP) which was launched in 2005 and designed to contribute to the reduction of hunger and malnutrition; increase enrolment, attendance and retention; improve academic performance; and provide markets for domestic farm produce. The GSFP was initially piloted in ten schools across the country and has currently been expanded to cover 975 schools.

WFP Ghana signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the GSFP in 2007 to contribute to the speedy scale-up of the national school feeding program. The WFP/GSFP collaboration is concentrated in Ghana’s three northern regions, which are beset by the highest levels of poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, and maternal and child mortality (children under 5) nationwide, as well as low primary school enrolment rates.

In the following interview with Ismail Omer of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) we will examine school feeding in Ghana.

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

The Ghana school feeding program reached 476,083 pupils in 975 schools across the country in the 2007/2008 academic year. Out of this number, WFP school meals were provided to 41,324 children in 80 schools, while take-home rations, aimed at increasing girls' education, were given to 34,754 primary school girls. Onsite school feeding is being expanded to reach 100,000 pupils in the 2008/2009 academic year.

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

School meals are generally credited with increasing enrolment, attendance, and retention rates. This is reflected in the Ghana School Feeding Program’s record in the 2006/2007 academic year, when national enrolment increased by 21 percent.

Enrolment rates in WFP-assisted schools in the Bolgatanga and Bongo Districts increased by 14 and 10 percent respectively. Pupils benefiting from WFP assistance have the added advantage of being fed with micro-nutrient-rich foods such as fortified Corn Soya Blend, iodized salt, and palm oil. These are fortified with Vitamin A, iron, and iodine, targeted to combat vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which are silent killers of women and children in developing countries. Furthermore, WFP purchases required food commodities from Ghanaian farmers and producers, thereby boosting their income and contributing to the development of the agro-processing industry.

Children themselves have noticed increased vitality and ability to concentrate in class. My favourite reference is from Rashidatu, a class 6 pupil in Our Lady of Peace Primary School in Bimbilla, who recounts several instances in the past when children collapsed out of weakness during morning school assembly. She insists that since the school feeding program started, these incidents have almost entirely stopped.

The take-home ration component has also had a tremendous impact on girls’ education in Ghana’s three northern regions. Girls’ enrolment in assisted schools grew from 9,000 to 42,000 at the peak of the program, whilst retention rates doubled to 99 percent.

In order to qualify for take-home rations, girls have to attend school for a minimum of 80 percent of the month. This has led to two interesting developments. First of all, parents allow their daughters to attend school more willingly and regularly, because the take-home rations are considered as compensation for the loss of the economic activity which their daughters would have provided if they had remained at home. Secondly, regular school attendance has resulted in better academic performance, enabling more girls to qualify into high schools.

Not surprisingly, several educational assessments have confirmed that food assistance programs such as this were instrumental in propelling the attainment of gender parity in primary education in the Upper East and Upper West Regions. Out of the ten regions in Ghana, these two had the highest gender parity ratios in 2006/2007.

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

WFP plans to reach 100,000 children in the 2008/2009 academic year and to maintain this number in the subsequent year as well. This is seen as a significant contribution to the Government’s target of reaching over 1 million children by 2010.

WFP will continue to give priority to schools in deprived districts, food-insecure areas, communities with low literacy, enrolment, and attendance, and high drop-out rates.

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

WFP will increase efforts to broaden its current set of multilateral and private sector donors. Just 25 cents a day provides a nutritious meal for a school child. We hope donors will help us feed the 100,000 school children targeted for the 2008/2009 academic year.

WFP Ghana welcomes all cash donations to enable it to locally purchase required food items from Ghanaian farmers. This would contribute to an important objective of this school feeding program, which is to provide markets to increase rural farmers’ income.

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

WFP Ghana’s budget requirements shot up from US $11.3 million to US $19.6 million as a result of food price hikes. Maize, which is a national staple and the main food component of our food basket, shot up by over 50 percent from US $365 per ton in April 2007, to US $500 per ton in the same month this year.

Although prices of some basic food commodities have gone down recently, the impact of the global food crisis on millions of hungry poor continues because the prices of staple food commodities are still higher than in previous years. Prices of commodities in developing countries where WFP buys are still very high, much higher than they were two years ago.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

Donations can be made through the WFP website or by directly contacting us for further details.

We welcome cash donations to enable us reach more poor children, who rely on this program to provide them with, sometimes, the only hot nutritious meal they can get in a day.

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

Basic education is one of the most effective investments in improving economies and creating literate, self-reliant, and healthy societies. Poor nutrition and health among school children contributes to inefficiency of the educational system. Even short-term hunger, common in children who are not fed before going to school, can have an adverse effect on learning. The extra demands on school-age children – to perform chores or walk long distances to school – create a need for energy.

WFP Ghana’s school feeding program has a three-pronged impact on national development: improving school enrolment and attendance, providing children with much needed micro-nutrients, and providing farmers with local markets through the local procurement of required food items.

With decades of invaluable experience in school feeding worldwide, it is critical that WFP continue to provide technical assistance, resources, and other forms of support to governments who are in the process of building sustainable school feeding programs, in order to strengthen their ability to appropriate and entirely fund such important safety-net programs themselves. Food for education has proven an effective solution and important partner in building nations.

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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