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Widespread food insecurity and poor access to social services makes it very hard for families to send their children to school.

Interview with Karin Manente of the World Food Programme in Laos

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is classified as a Least Developed Country (LDC) and Low Income Food Deficit Country (LIFDC). The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has been successfully running a school feeding program since 2002, in close cooperation with the Lao Ministry of Education.

Laos is an ethnically diverse country, with many of the 49 officially recognized groups living in isolated areas and many people in these groups who cannot fluently speak the national language, Lao. The quality and levels of access to educational services are poor, especially in the vast mountainous and remote areas of the country. Many villages do not have complete primary schools (grades 1 to 5). Children often have to walk long distances to be able to even complete primary education.

We talk about education and school feeding in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) with Ms Karin Manente, WFP country director in Vientiane.

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

In 2008, WFP assisted almost 90,000 schoolchildren in three Northern provinces of Laos, with the total number of beneficiaries — including the children, their families, and the village cooks and storekeepers — reaching over 290,000 people. This year is a very important one for school feeding in Laos. We have expanded our activities to three more provinces in the South of the country, reaching 24,000 more students in the first phase. We will reach almost 40,000 students in total once the expansion has been fully rolled out.

By September 2010, the expansion will bring the total number of schoolchildren assisted to over 130,000, and the total number of beneficiaries in Laos to almost 430,000 people.

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

Since the start of school feeding in 2002, we have seen a vast improvement in school enrollment figures in our target districts. In 2002, net enrollment rates in primary schools were 60 percent for boys aged six to ten years, and 53 percent for girls. In 2008, they had risen to 85 percent and 79 percent, respectively. The attendance rates in schools supported by school feeding are also very encouraging.

In addition to this, WFP has a partnership with UNICEF in a project called ABEL (Access to Basic Education in Laos), which is funded by AusAID, the Australian government’s overseas aid agency. Through this project, a comprehensive educational package is delivered to the villages. In more than 100 schools in 2008, UNICEF developed “Schools of Quality”, ensuring that the students benefit from a healthy and safe school environment as well as modern learning methods and materials, while WFP provides food assistance to the children at school.

The mid-morning snack provided through the school feeding program is prepared with sweetened Corn-Soya Blend (CSB), enriched with vitamins and minerals to provide much needed micronutrients to the children. After the publication of the Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) in 2007, its results were integrated in our school feeding program. The CFSVA found that fat consumption in rural areas of Laos is very low, so vegetable oil was added to the CSB recipes of the mid-morning snack in order to improve fat intake.

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

Since February 2009, the school feeding program has expanded its geographical coverage in Laos. With the new project areas – the three southern provinces of Saravane, Sekong and Attapeu – WFP will be able to reach almost 40,000 more students in an area with very poor enrollment and attendance rates and high gender gaps in education.

School feeding is officially recognized by the Ministry of Education as an important component of the Education Sector Development Framework (ESDF) 2009-2015, which praises its role in encouraging “children in lower primary grades from more disadvantaged communities to remain in school”.

The ESDF also considers among its medium to long-term priorities the extension of school feeding to the 47 districts identified by the government as the poorest and in the most urgent need of assistance. Moreover, the Lao PDR Ministry of Education is increasingly assuming ownership of the school feeding project, which is the key to promoting its longer-term sustainability.

What would be the sources of funding for any expansion of the school feeding program? What has been the effect of high food prices in this funding effort?

In 2007, WFP submitted a project proposal to the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program and was very fortunate to be awarded a contribution of more than US$9 million over three years, which is being used to finance the expansion of the program to the south. Starting in 2008, the US government, through McGovern-Dole, will provide WFP with in-kind contributions to cover the needs of the new areas for three years.

Rising food prices have affected WFP Laos over the past few years. As prices seem to have stabilized in 2008, we now fear that the current global financial crisis will mean that donors’ ability to support us will be affected. A small country office like Laos is constantly engaged in fundraising and often on the brink of pipeline breaks whenever contributions lack. Continued funding from donor governments and the private sector is crucial.

How can someone help the school feeding program?

I would encourage everyone to contribute to school feeding programs in Laos and elsewhere. It costs only 25US$ cents a day (50US$ a year) to provide a child with a nutritious meal and a take-home ration that will encourage the family to support his/her education.

In a country like Laos, where a combination of widespread food insecurity and poor access to social services makes it very hard for families to send their children to school, the food incentive provided by school feeding makes a real difference between an educated and a non-educated child, between one that will continue to live in poverty with little education and one who will stand a chance for a better future.

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

In the case of Laos, I would like to stress the special support WFP gives to the most disadvantaged of the schoolchildren. Not only do we target the districts and provinces with the worst food security and educational indicators, but we also help reduce gender gaps by providing bigger take-home rations to girls, and give extra support to the many informal boarders in our assisted schools.

These are children whose families live more than an hour walking distance from the school and who are hosted, during school weeks, at relatives’ houses or in informal boarding facilities close to the schools. The extra rations they receive are meant to complement the food provisions their families give them and to compensate for the increased difficulties they face in pursuing an education.

In addition to this, I believe it is important for everyone to know that school feeding — although mainly directed to school children and their families — also benefits the students’ villages and communities. The take-home rations have an important role in encouraging families to send their children to school and in providing important nutrients to the children and their families.

Through the village-level school feeding committees, WFP involves the entire community, particularly women, and creates a network of participation and support to children’s education.

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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