Five lessons for harvesting success through home-grown school meal programs
By ANGELINE MURIMIRWA, Regional Executive Director of Camfed for Eastern and Southern Africa
This International Day of Charity, I’ve been thinking about the philanthropy that happens in our communities every day — where those with so little give everything they can to those with even less. I’ve been thinking about the lessons I’ve learned from establishing home-grown school meal programs — so critical to keeping vulnerable children in school and nourishing their brains to learn. Eradicating hunger, the objective of Sustainable Development Goal #2, is what our mothers in Zimbabwe work towards every day. Our partnership is a lot like making a success of sustainable farming methods — going from risky subsistence level to something that will sustain not just your family, but your community, and help build a better future. This is more than an easy-to-understand metaphor: we are literally growing a program and harvesting success, together.
If you want a seed to flourish into a nutritious plant, there are a few things you need to understand: What is the right seed for this soil and climate? Do I need to enrich the soil? Who will do the planting, care for the plants, weed and harvest? Will I need to add fertilizer and water? How do I work with and protect the environment? And how do I cook the plant to make the most of the love and labor that has gone into it? Can I learn from this farming experience and do it even better next season?
The lessons from the fields have been invaluable in my work educating marginalized girls
My roots are in rural poverty in Zimbabwe. My community is made up of subsistence farmers. And the lessons from the fields have been invaluable in my work educating marginalized girls. When you launch a support partnership, you need to understand the soil (the local context), the climate (what are the opportunities and the barriers in this community), who’s in charge of the farming (which skills and knowledge community members and officials can bring to the table), what inputs are missing (material, financial and administrative), how to protect the environment (protecting children and creating a sustainable infrastructure) and what best practice looks like for success.
Here are the five lessons we have learned working with parents to establish the wrap-around support children need to succeed at school, breaking down a major barrier: hunger.
1. Communities must own and lead the program
From the very beginning, initiatives must be designed under the theme ‘Our children, our problems, our solutions’.
It’s never about our organization, Camfed, ‘coming to rescue.’ We look with communities at the data available, which clearly says: Children are struggling to learn because they are hungry, and children living alone or with very old or sick guardians are worst affected.
Our goal is to come together under Ubuntu, the Southern African humanist philosophy which says that we share a bond that connects all humanity, and we need to look after each other.
We need to create a school where children do not faint from hunger — to create a culture where every parent knows that when they are gone, there will be a community to care for their child. This is the drive that sees people step up to volunteer to farm, to provide land or crops, to cook, to provide utensils etc. No effort is too small, and no contribution is dismissed.
2. Do not over-emphasize external inputs: careful timing and positioning is everything
What, when and how external resources are provided can make or break a home-grown school meal program. Good intentions on their own are not enough. When more emphasis is placed on external donations rather than on local contributions, this unintentionally creates the impression that without these inputs communities cannot sustain their intervention.
It is important that external inputs represent a small contribution to the larger community effort, as opposed to a situation where someone ‘makes’ communities feed their children. Careful design and acceptance of community guidance will guarantee success.
3. Get ALL the local experts involved to broaden the ecosystem
Camfed always asks, “Who else can help us do this better, faster and at scale?” Camfed staff and trainers facilitate community discussions to map out potential stakeholders, using specific guidance around the kinds of questions to ask, and how to probe further. This broadens the ecosystem for school feeding, which is led by the school administration but goes beyond the school: Health officials helping with food hygiene, nutrition and child growth monitoring; agricultural companies or research institutions helping to improve crop yields so that the community has more to give; the Grain Marketing Board providing seed and fertilizer; the environmental protection agencies ensuring that farming practices remain environmental friendly; traditional leaders allocating land for collective demonstration gardens; and Camfed alumnae (CAMA) members helping with the cooking, record-keeping and impact analysis, for example.
Importantly, facilitators support parents to keep robust records and track progress, and provide other life skills training — such as financial literacy — to participating mothers, supporting their personal development and agency, and the community as a whole. Monetary contributions in support of programs thus become just a small piece of the larger community-led effort.
4. Keep reflecting and celebrating
Throughout the initiative, it is important to schedule times for reflection for everybody involved, asking, “What is working well? What is not? What needs some adjustments? Who else should we loop in?” Celebrating every milestone reached is critical too — it might be something as simple as one more bag of maize raised compared to the previous term, or more meals provided, or a successful donation. The leadership at both local and district level needs to recognize, commend and acknowledge community achievements. This leads to the personal pride and social cohesion required for any sustainable initiative.
5. Make sure community contributions are costed
This is a critical piece in ensuring communities recognize and celebrate their own inputs, and the scale of what they can do with better coordination and collective support. We work with schools to help them record what they feed the children, how often, and how many they feed each day. We process that data and share it back. That way everyone can see how much they are contributing.
Importantly, we share this data alongside the school performance data — e.g students’ attendance, exam results, drop out and truancy cases — showing the positive impact school feeding has on learning, and providing additional momentum for the meal program to continue.
Something as seemingly simple as a home grown school meal program takes a plan to succeed, and it takes a lot of different inputs — including passion, love and trust. Get it right, and the harvest will be rich.
Angeline Murimirwa was one of the first young women to receive support from Camfed to go to secondary school in Zimbabwe. Camfed is an international NGO which supports girls in the poorest, most rural districts of sub-Saharan Africa to go to school, succeed, and lead. Angeline, who excelled in all her studies, became a key founding member of the Camfed Association, CAMA, the pan-African network of young women activists for girls’ education. Today Angeline is the Regional Executive Director of Camfed for Eastern and Southern Africa, leading programs to unlock the potential of hundreds of thousands of girls across sub-Saharan Africa.