Meeting UN WFP consultants the UN Gambian headquarters December 2018

(Part of the Gambia 2018 Tour Series)

The Gambia’s primary school feeding has provided sustaining meals for children across the country for over 15 years. This is perhaps both a reflection on the local hardship and testament to the collaborations between their education policy and the supporting global community.

This has been supported by the United Nations global ‘World Food Program’.

A WFP Personal Experience

Isatou has been one of these beneficiaries of the school feeding program, and holds strong praise for its impact that she has felt for herself and friends around her. Most schools look for a small commitment from students to be able to add to the condiments for the meal. At Isatou’s school, St Josephs, from primary 1 to primary 6 every student was required to pay 50 bututs (0.8 pence), that would be collected during student registration every morning before classes commence. Potentially 2-3 students a day in her class would not be able to afford this, but often the teacher or another student would help and put in the 50 bututs to cover it. Like many aspects of Gambian life, there is typically a re-enforcing support system that comes from the community itself.

When the lunchtime bell rings, students rush for the central kitchen where their names will be called based on the payment registrar, and a nominated student will go and collect a big food bowl for 8-10 students to sit around and eat communally, a cultural significance for eating together and bonding relationships.

Many of those meals remain in Isatou’s fondest school memories for the friends that she has built, and friendships she still holds today. Looking back, some day’s meals were stronger (e.g. domoda peanut source and rice) than others that could be lacking, and sometimes there was not enough food which leads to “fufuroe” which translates roughly to ‘fight for your food’ or ‘eat quickly before it is gone’. Students would often laugh about it resiliently, but looking back it is hard to think there were some that relied so heavily on this meal for the day. Some students may be fortunate to go on to buy their own food from ‘tuck shops’ were female venders from the village would sell other items (e.g. beans in bread, smoked fish, pancake bread, juice etc). However, the school meal was always there and fairly reliable, and provided an opportunity for everyone to at least eat something. For some this may be their main and only meal of the day. This particular school, whilst in a nearby town bought students from all of the surrounding villages, where family circumstances can vary but the hard grafting for basic subsistence is commonplace.

Having come through this childhood experience, and learnt so much more about the importance of health and nutrition as well as the difficulties that many in the community still face it brings perspective. It is astonishing that little has changed, and the WFP potential winding down of the program, without any successful and sustainable replacement could be catastrophic to many of these communities.

Sukuta School Kitchen Project

Back in 2008 I had connected with a friend from the village of Mansajang who was also headmaster at Sukuta school in central river region (teachers can be posted to any part of the country). Sukuta primary school was one of the most rural schoools in the country, and always an adventure to get to, including a geli geli bus, a donkey cart through the bush, and often the back of a motorbike to complete the sandy pathways.

During my parents visit, we tied in a visit to the school where the kids had an absolute field day singing and learning a repertoire of my parents endless songs and nursery rhymes, a game of sandy street football, and time with families in the village. At night, some elders came and bought us a cooked meal as a thank you for the support and we all sat out under the stars and chatted late into the night. There was a more important connection to the village, however, as we were supporting with the early stages of a community development project.

Some photo’s of old 2008 photographs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was successful in seeking funding through VSO from the British high commissioner, through their small projects fund. Initially the school was looking to build a wall and fence to protect the school grounds from free roaming cattle, to give the education some dignity and respect, and allow them to have a vegetable garden and participate in school gardening competitions. However the project evolved as it became apparent between our village meetings that the school urgently needed a kitchen in order to benefit from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). This was the first time that I became directly involved with the WFP.

 

United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in The Gambia

Against the backdrop of the UN global development goals, WFP is working to reduce the prevalence of underweight and malnutrition in vulnerable communities. Targeting 144,500 people recovering from recurrent drought and floods, this involves the provision of highly nutritious foods to children under five and nursing mothers, as well as nutrition awareness activities to encourage dietary diversification and healthy feeding practices. WFP is also assisting communities affected by the 2016 heavy rainfalls and flooding through an emergency food assistance (cash based transfers) to 10,000 people in need.

At the school level, traditionally the WFP was a huge international operation supporting schools all over the world. Important food stocks such as rice, imported in from various countries such as India were negotiated as part of wider international aid packages and partnerships. The WFP had its challenges in managing the movement of food stock and resources to rural corners of the world, and to ensure that it all got to the hungry child mouths that it was intended for against a back drop of poverty and disadvantage. However, for such a huge global operation it had huge impact in the shear number of children that it has provided for, many of whom may not necessarily have been able to be supported this way with families living below the poverty line off less than $1-$1.90 a day (range reflecting inflation over the years). Beyond this it has had impacts in helping to change the culture of education in the community, and encouraging families to send children to school to learn rather than to the farms to work. School enrollment and attendance has clearly been uplifted.

Strategy Change – New WFP School Feeding Strategy

One of the struggles with the traditional WFP was that its model helped to establish something special but was largely based on aid, and was unsustainable. The longer term strategy is for local governments to take ownership of the school feeding programs. The WFP will gradually pass over to government to take ownership through the implementation of the ‘Home-Grown School Feeding Framework’.

The initial focus is on areas where malnutrition is high and school attendance low. This is part of an integrated intervention, also involving UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). It addresses the health and nutrition needs of more than 100,000 students; promotes school gardens; and boosts smallholder production through commodity purchases. Beyond this, WFP is also supporting government efforts to build communities’ capacity for climate resilience. As Chair of the UN Disaster Management Group, WFP also assists in coordinating a harmonized disaster preparedness and response. Vitally important work.

Through the years it has been a privilege to connect in many small ways to this wider program, and to provide input and support to the education department. One area of ongoing discussion has been our interest to combine our community gardens and our school gardens in order to more effectively support the program.

Current WFP piloted models include paying the schools to source food as and where they can, or paying a private catering company who source for a larger pool of schools. What we believe is missing is using this initiative as a platform to create a ‘market’ to motivate and empower local community groups more directly and to improve the nutrition within the diet. A hybrid garden between school and community can create employment as well as continuing to use the garden as an education resource for the children to develop practical skills. Through a central program food/ingredient standards can be maintained, risky cash transactions can be limited, sourcing can be kept local and controlled, and the supply chain can be streamlined to be efficient.

It was an honor therefore, during this visit, to be invited to United Nations head quarters to meet with WFP consultants researching and working on future direction of the program, keen to learn from our work and proposals. Further meetings with the ministries of education and agriculture also have provided interest in piloting our proposal that could go on to further inform national strategy. Watch this space.

Isatou meeting with UN WFP consultants researching the future models for Gambian School Feeding

Sustainability can mean many things, but ultimately it requires people and communities to have veted interest to support something for the long term.  Community gardens represents just one element to our work, and our journey continues. Find out more in our next blog: Part 5: Back To The Village: Catching up with Basse Women Co-operatives (coming soon)

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“Boto keseng boko lo no” – An empty sack cannot stand (local Mandinka proverb). Without subsistence, nutrition and good health, how can one grow, learn and develop to stand on our own two feet and be positive contributions to society.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Stay Healthy, Happy and Helpful!

Paul & Isatou

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