Crucial to the reconstruction of Afghanistan is the health and well being of its children. Food and education are crucial elements for Afghanistan to become a peaceful and prosperous democracy, but years of conflict, natural disasters, and now soaring food prices are hard to overcome. Children’s health and education are constantly at risk in Afghanistan. In this interview with Rick Corsino, director of United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) operations in Afghanistan, we will look at the status of its vital school feeding programs.
How many children are benefiting from the WFP School feeding programs within the country?
In 2008, the WFP School Feeding Programme plans to reach 6,100 primary schools and nearly 2.2 million children – including 0.7 million girls attending school from grades 1 to 9 – in three ways:
1) On-site: provision of high-energy biscuits during class as a midday snack.
2) Wheat take-home ration: before and after winter, especially in areas facing harsh winter conditions.
3) Vegetable oil take-home ration: given as an incentive for girls in areas with a high gender gap, thus aimed to increase enrollment and attendance.
Discuss what effect the meals have on the children in terms of school attendance, performance and nutrition.
High Energy Biscuits: Providing fortified biscuits is a proven means of attracting young children into school. Moreover, the biscuits help them to learn by fulfilling their nutritional requirements and thus improving their development, learning skills, and concentration. A 100-gram packet of biscuits is provided each day to primary school age boys and girls enrolled in schools located in vulnerable and food insecure areas with low enrollment rates and high gender gaps.
Wheat take home rations: These rations are given to schoolchildren before and after winter to boys and girls enrolled in schools located in food-insecure areas with harsh winter conditions and difficult access. The aim is to improve school enrollment in the most vulnerable parts of the country by providing this ration, which benefits not only the children, but also the whole family.
Vegetable Oil take home ration: These rations are provided to encourage families in remote and rural areas to enroll their girls in school and ensure their regular attendance.
These programs have demonstrated great success. According to the physical head-count in 2007, the attendance rate reached 84%, while teachers reported that the children’s performance and concentration have improved so much that the overall success rate reached 90% in 2007.
What plans are there for making school lunches available for all children?
School lunches are defined as hot rations. As such, they are both very difficult, logistically speaking, and expensive to establish because of the high price of food and fuel used for cooking. That is why WFP only provides dry rations in the form of biscuits, as well as wheat take-home rations and oil as incentives for girls. These commodities are easily stored and preserved.
Lunch provision is not in current WFP plans because we are still in a post emergency situation. Needs are high in all sectors, and we already face so many difficulties in delivering the dry and easily storable rations. From a logistics point of view, providing hot meals is simply not yet possible.
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?
At the moment, there is not enough money to support all schools in Afghanistan, and priority is given to remote areas and food-insecure districts. With higher food prices, WFP will not be able to procure the same amount of food it was able to purchase in past years. Right now, a new problem WFP has to face is soaring food prices, which reduces the volume of the contribution of our donors. For example, US Food Aid Contribution in 2003 was around $ 1.75 billion, which represented 3.1 million tonnes. Today the same budget can purchase around 1 million tonnes.
Though it is recognized at the global level that scaling up school feeding programs could be an immediate and effective response to higher food prices, the Joint Government/UN Price Mitigation Appeal (Jan to July 2008) has only — based on needs assessed and consensus built locally — addressed the needs of those segments of the Afghan population not previously assisted by WFP. These population groups were pushed from borderline food insecurity into food insecurity, and unable to afford staple foods in local markets.
WFP Afghanistan is currently discussing additional funding for school children with major donors.
How can someone help the school feeding program?
Besides the immediate school feeding programme objectives (i.e. increased enrollment and attendance in food-insecure areas with low enrollment and high gender gap, and addressing short-term hunger to improve learning), whoever wants to support a sustainable school feeding program should allocate a significant amount of resources to the national counterpart.
This would ensure that requirements for political commitment for universal basic education are met, such as assignment of appropriate staff, improvement of basic infrastructures, increased managerial and financial responsibility for schooling (teachers, books, and supplies), measures to inform parents and communities about the benefits of schooling, their roles, and capacity building.
Anything else you’d like to add about why you think school feeding is important for people to support?
School feeding programs have their strongest effects on education and in addressing social vulnerability, and need to be considered as part of a set of interventions designed to mitigate the effects of high food prices on vulnerable households. Among other benefits, school feeding could help vulnerable families avoid having to adopt negative coping strategies, such as pulling children out of school.
School feeding programs in Afghanistan (courtesy of the UN WFP)