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In rural areas, among indigenous populations, children may go to school with an empty stomach.

Interview: Priscila de Molina of the World Food Programme in Guatemala

In Latin America, the country of Guatemala suffers high child malnutrition rates. Jennifer Mizgata, a United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) officer in Washington DC, visited Guatemala and saw first-hand the suffering of children. Mizgata, in an account of her visit published in the Baltimore Sun, wrote:

“Henri is just 11, but already his prematurely wizened face is that of a grown-up – a casualty of a daily job breaking rocks in the sun. By contrast, his small body resembles that of the average American 8-year-old….. Yet thanks to an alternative school program and his own determination, Henri is able to study in the afternoon. In fact, he is the best math student in his class. … Henri is kept out of traditional school by marginal school fees and his need to work to survive. While investing in education is critical, Guatemalans must first be able to eat. Without food, Henri and his peers can’t focus on their education.”

School feeding is desperately needed in Guatemala. Priscila De Molina is a WFP program assistant in Guatemala and she recently discussed the details of school feeding in the country.

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

161,420 school children currently benefit from school feeding programs, implemented through both the Ministry of Education and through NGOs. The targeting of beneficiaries was based on the highest prevalence of chronic under-nutrition, as reported by the National Census of First Grade Schoolchildren (2001). The school feeding program reaches children in provinces where the under-nutrition rate is higher than 70 percent, as compared to the already startlingly high national average of 49.3 percent.

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

The immediate effects of school feeding are reducing short-term hunger and steadily increasing attendance. Guatemala is currently working to achieve Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals, which is universal completion of primary education. In Guatemala, the WFP-supported school feeding program is providing micronutrient-fortified foods (enriched milk and fortified corn-soy blend) in view of micronutrient deficiencies and the prevalence of anemia. With the enriched milk and fortified corn-soy blend, the parent-teacher school feeding committees prepare a warm, porridge-like drink called ‘atole’. ‘Atole’ is a traditional part of the Guatemalan diet and is offered to schoolchildren usually by mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Teachers report an improvement in the school performance of children after they drink the ‘atole’.

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

In 2000, the Ministry of Education established a de-centralized system to transfer cash to school boards to purchase commodities in the local markets for the school feeding programs. With allocations of the national budget, the national school feeding program is reaching 2.1 million schoolchildren in 18,000 schools, which represents about 70 percent of total schools. The program is meant to have national coverage, but some schools are facing difficulties in establishing school boards entitled to cash transfers. Universal coverage is the goal of the Ministry of Education in the short run. WFP has attempted to close the gap in coverage, at least in the areas with the highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition.

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

The national school feeding program is funded by the Government of Guatemala. WFP has supported school feeding by providing everything from high-energy biscuits, to school breakfast or school lunch, to ‘atole’. Within the government, WFP has been promoting what we call ‘the essential package’, which advocates for additional interventions to improve the health and nutrition of school-age children, such as regular de-worming and micronutrient supplementation, use of safe water and latrines, and training to students, parents and teachers on related topics.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

One can support the implementation of a quality school feeding program by targeting resources to implement school-based health and sanitation services. This can include de-worming tablets, micronutrient supplementation, water purification systems, construction of latrines, and seeds for school demonstration gardens to support household food security. In extremely poor provinces, schools lack kitchens and fuel-saving stoves. Technical assistance for institutional strengthening at the local level is also needed. The Ministry of Education is committed to de-centralizing all services (including school feeding) to the 22 provinces of the country.

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

In rural areas, among indigenous populations, children may go to school with an empty stomach. The rations contributed by WFP help these children reach their daily caloric requirements and, in particular, address the micronutrient deficiencies of young, growing children who lack access to quality food at home. Children living in poverty who complete primary school earn higher wages in their adult life than those who do not, thus alleviating poverty. School feeding can serve as a platform for school-based services and also to community-led activities, like the promotion of environmental consciousness through water harvesting and fuel-saving stoves. In Guatemala, WFP’s assistance will continue to promote balanced menus at schools, training on health and nutrition to school boards, and, to the extent possible, inclusion of health and sanitation services.

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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