September 6th, 2007 00:46 EST
U.S.-funded programs aid vulnerable infants, schoolchildren, families
Washington -- In the Podor district of Senegal, it is a challenge for nomadic peoples to send their children to school. Some leave the children with non-nomadic relatives, who then face the financial burden of extra mouths to feed. Often, sending children to school is beyond the nomads’ means altogether.
A U.S.-government-sponsored program that provides nutritious school meals as well as rations for students to take home to their families is having a significant impact on this problem.
“We found that the school feeding program pretty much changed things overnight,” said Thoric Cederström, director of food security for International Relief and Development, a nongovernmental organization.
“These nomadic peoples [in Senegal] were very willing to leave their children with extended kin in the villages where there were schools, precisely because of the school feeding program,” Cederström told USINFO. “Enrollment shot up overnight and the proportion of families sending their children to school went up 25 to 30 percent.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds school feeding programs under the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program (FFE), which aims to reduce child hunger and increase school attendance -- especially by girls -- in developing countries.
The program has brought more children into the schools in Senegal and other parts of Africa, as well as in Latin America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Children learn better when they are not distracted or weakened by hunger, said Cederström, who previously directed anti-hunger programs for Counterpart International (CPI), another nongovernmental group.
CPI provides schools in Senegal with U.S.-donated commodities such as bulgur and vegetable oil, along with local foods, such as dried fish, purchased with proceeds from the sale of some commodities. CPI also operates nutrition programs for mothers and babies, teacher training, sanitation, deworming and other health services. Funding comes from both USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“People recognize that this is a contribution to the well-being of their children and the future of their community,” said Cederström. “They realize it’s going to help their children access employment opportunities.”
However, sending children to school means they will not be available to work or care for siblings, he said. School meals and take-home rations help offset these “opportunity costs.”
In countries with low school enrollment rates for girls, parents receive food items such as rice or vegetable oil in exchange for allowing daughters to attend school. Providing take-home rations “has dramatically increased girls’ attendance, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” says a 2006 USDA report to Congress.
“The ultimate goal is to enable children to enter the work force as healthy, educated adults,” said Babette Gainor, deputy director for food assistance in USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
In fiscal year 2007, FFE provided about $100 million in aid for school feeding and related programs in 16 developing countries, said Gainor. The United States donated more than 88,600 metric tons of commodities. The FY 2008 budget request for FFE is $100 million.
In addition to nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) and foreign governments sponsor school feeding programs.
Parents, school staff or volunteers prepare and distribute meals, which might consist of hot porridge for breakfast, biscuits made from corn meal and soy for a snack, and rice with beans for lunch. Regional foods are offered, such as corn tortillas in Latin America and naan (a type of wheat bread) in Afghanistan.
Aiming to feed 2.5 million children each year, FFE actually has been accomplishing more -- feeding somewhere around 3 million to 3.3 million, according to Gainor.
Community involvement helps make the programs sustainable, she said.
“The goal is to be able to establish these programs and then have a handoff either to the government or to local communities,” Gainor said. This has happened, for example, in the Dominican Republic and Moldova, she added.
OTHER FOOD AID PROGRAMS
USAID’s programs to alleviate child hunger include both emergency food aid and long-term development aid. Mothers and babies are the focus of nearly half of the nonemergency food aid supplied under Food for Peace Title II, a large USAID food aid program.
Children are most vulnerable to malnutrition between the ages of six months, when they begin eating other foods besides breast milk, and two years, said Judy Canahuati, a maternal and child health nutrition adviser at USAID.
She said USAID, working with WFP and charitable organizations, provides nutrition supplements and fortified foods to vulnerable women and children. The programs also teach women about nutrition and the importance of breast-feeding.
“If you improve the nutrition and the caring practices of the parents, then the kids get a better start in life,” Canahuati said.
Gainor said that both USDA and USAID are “looking to maximize the cognitive potential of children.”
She said the two U.S. agencies try to help mothers and children at different stages of their lives.
”USAID is trying to touch the lives of mothers and infants, and USDA to transition them into a school feeding program where they have an opportunity not only to have healthy meals through their childhood but also have an opportunity to be educated,” she said.
Information about the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program and a 2006 Report to Congress (PDF 1.1MB) on the global effort to reduce child hunger while improving school attendance are available on the USDA Web site.
Information about USAID's Food for Peace program and its infant and young child feeding program can be found on the agency's Web site.
For more information on U.S. food aid, see Global Development and Foreign Aid and the electronic journal Food Security and Safety.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer