Back to School: In Kyrgyzstan’s mountains, school meals reach new heights

As a child growing up in Japan, Keiko Izushi ate a daily lunch provided by the Government’s school lunch programme. Now, as the Deputy County Director of the World Food Programme in Kyrgyzstan, she is seeing a new generation getting the same start in life with a new school meals pilot. This is doing more than just filling stomachs — it is fuelling education, tackling malnutrition and bringing communities together.

by Keiko Izushi

The World Food Programme is celebrating the back to school season with stories of school meals programmes from around the globe. Photos: WFP/Elizabeth Zalkind

The smell of freshly baked bread lingers in the air as the excited chatter of children buzzes around me. They shout over one another, competing to tell me about their favourite subjects and what they want to be when they grow up: A pilot! A teacher! A scientist! Their enthusiasm is infectious.

I am visiting a school in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan — a lively and ethnically diverse city which once marked the midpoint of the ancient Silk Road. I am seeing at first-hand the fantastic results of the national school meals programme.

In 2013, with funding from the Russian Federation, the World Food Programme (WFP) launched a four-year project at the request of the Kyrgyz Government to help improve the efficiency and quality of its school meals programme. Three years on, 62,000 students are dining daily on nutritious meals.

The fresh bread I smell is part of today’s lunch, made using wheat flour fortified with vitamins and minerals and baked in the on-site oven. It’s to be served along with seasonal vegetables, picked fresh from the school garden.

Students dine on a freshly prepared lunch as part of the school meals programme in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Zalkind

A hidden gem

As a Japanese national, I too had school lunches each day at primary school. I still remember the dishes and the time I spent with my friends at the table. I believe that this system of school meals, with its focus on universal education and nutrition, contributed to Japan’s rapid economic and social recovery after the devastation of World War II.

When I joined WFP’s team in Kyrgyzstan as Deputy County Director in January 2016, it struck me that the school meals programme was just like the one in my childhood memories, with its aproned cooks and hot, hearty meals like meat and vegetable soup.

I was not alone in making this analogy — Kurara Chibana, the Japanese model and WFP Global Ambassador Against Hunger, commented that with over 140 menus in the programme’s recipe book, the school meals programme in Kyrgyz Republic was as good as, if not better than, its Japanese equivalent. It is a hidden gem of a programme in a country that only came into existence 25 years ago and is still finding its economic feet.

By 2015 the protein and micronutrient content in the menus had doubled. Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Zalkind

Not just food but good nutrition

Before the launch of the programme, the Government budget allocation of 7 som (US$ 0.10) per child per day provided a lunch of bread and tea. The bread was unfortified and black tea is known to inhibit iron absorption. Today 260 schools — 12 percent of all the primary schools in the country — serve their students a hot, nutritious meal with a similar budget.

The nutrient-rich lunches not only give the children energy but also help to tackle the country’s problem of anaemia and other micronutrient deficiencies. By 2015 the protein and micronutrient content in the menus had doubled, compared to before the programme launch.

WFP staff have trained community members in food preparation and hygiene. Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Zalkind

A joint success

With initial input from WFP and the Kyrgyz Government, bit by bit, the local community is taking ownership of the programme. Parents and other community members contribute with programme and menu design, and funding, as well as helping in the kitchen and school gardens.

The journey has been no small undertaking. Many of the schools are situated in the very rural and mountainous provinces of Kyrgyzstan, with limited access to water. Not only has the WFP team here managed to get kitchens up and running, they have also helped train school staff in hygiene and sanitation.

Partnerships with other UN agencies are also contributing to the success of this programme. The UN children’s agency UNICEF is assisting WFP by providing water and sanitation facilities in some pilot schools, and future collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and Japan International Cooperation Agency are on the horizon.

“For the children themselves, sharing a hot meal with their friends and the smell of freshly baked bread will be memories that will stay with them forever.” Photo: WFP/Elizabeth Zalkind

Looking ahead

The ultimate goal is for the successful model to be adopted by all schools in Kyrgyzstan. While the number of schools asking to participate in the pilot is on the rise, the challenge facing the programme is to avoid compromising on quality or standards for the sake of expansion, in particular if it comes at the expense of hygiene and children’s health.

A shorter-term aim is for the programme to become a home-grown school meals programme, linking schools to nearby farmers in order to secure a steady supply of fresh produce while supporting the local agriculture.

The school meals programme in Kyrgyzstan embodies many of WFP’s aims and values: innovation, resilience building, social protection, community involvement and sustainability. It is based on the country’s needs and strengthens the existing school meals system.

These are just the measurable components, the ones we have data for. Then there are the ones you can’t pin a number on: the children’s smiles, their enthusiasm to come to school every day and learn, their parents’ pride in bringing up healthy sons and daughters, and the cohesion of a community that is taking care of its children together.

For the children themselves, sharing a hot meal with their friends and the smell of freshly baked bread will be memories that will stay with them forever, as they have with me.

The school meals programme is about more than filling bellies, it’s about creating a generation of people free from hunger who are able to learn at school and fulfil not only their own but also their country’s, potential.

Thanks to the contribution of Emma Goatman, Nadya Frank, Elizabeth Zalkind and Simone Gie.

The World Food Programme is celebrating the back to school season with stories of school meals programmes from around the world. Read how school meals are feeding a love of learning in Nepal and how to build effective and sustainable National School Meals programs.

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