In every village, children are surrounded by isolated green slopes and ever-present mist in a land known for its ethereal beauty — Bhutan. Sitting on the southeastern slopes of the Himalayas, the country paints a perfect picture of an inherent, communal love for nature.
Here, in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, one gets the sense of an ancient, magical other-world that you would only find on a postcard. It’s been called “the last Shangri-La.”
“The real appeal of Bhutan is that we feel human,” Tshewang Dendup of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service tells PBS Frontline. “Maybe we are somewhat isolated from the world, but we feel part of a living community that is not just connected by wires… By and large, you would have to say people are happy here.”
The connection of this living community — a love for both the land and one another — is key. The largely Buddhist population of 741,000 live primarily in rural communities, where they practice agriculture and pastoralism.
Equitability and environmental sustainability form the pillars of the country’s economic development and the foundation of a philosophy that embraces protection of the land on which the Bhutanese live. One of the most sacred and universal ways to connect with the land is through food and farming.
With the land forming the backbone of the kingdom’s well-being — and remaining near and dear to the heart — happiness remains close at hand. In fact, the country measures its quality of life through “gross national happiness.”
For 7-year-old Dungkar Drukpa, happiness could be found in his love for his parents and siblings. But his childhood in a mountain village was fraught with sporadic meals and very little to eat. It wasn’t until a distant relative took him to a school far from home that he knew what it meant to be free from hunger.
In school, Dungkar and his classmates ate what they fondly called “world food” — rice, lentils, fish, wheat, oil and flour. It took him time to get adjusted to such filling meals.
“As time moved on, I met many friends, including the cooks and the teachers. I started enjoying games and sports and participating in cultural activities,” Dungkar says. “It was a totally different life then, compared to the near poverty of life back in the village, where you ate less and worked more.”
Dungkar wasn’t the only Bhutanese child whose life changed because of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Today, WFP and the royal government reach more than 50,000 boys and girls across Bhutan with nutritious food — a vital program for a country struggling to overcome poverty.
A Way Out of Poverty
Unfortunately, poverty in Bhutan remains widespread. Today, 12 percent of the nation’s population live in poverty — mainly farmers, traders and day laborers who live in rural areas.
That’s why education here plays a huge role in economic diversification and poverty reduction. WFP has been providing school meals in Bhutan since 1974, the very year that Dungkar enrolled in school for the first time and his life changed forever.
Although the number of people living below the poverty line has dropped and overall food security in the country has improved, school remains one of the most reliable ways for children to get the nutriton they need to grow healthy and strong.
Fifth grader Pelmo lives in a hut with five other children in Wangdue district. Forty students from Nobding Lower Secondary School live in these temporary huts — away from home — so they can attend regular classes.
Just a few years ago, Pelmo and her classmates had to rely on food rations and family members to stay well fed. Pelmo was used to waking up at 6 o’clock in the morning to clean, cook breakfast and pack her lunch. Without electricity and busy with chores, she’d barely have time to do her homework in the mornings or evenings.
In another part of the country, 7-year-old Tashi Jamtsho lives with his grandmother and walks an hour to get to school every day. At school, he used to watch others eat their lunch, and he rarely played during breaks.
“It made me hungrier,” he says.
Today, with the support of WFP and their schools, neither Pelmo nor Tashi have to worry about their next meal. Instead, they have the time to focus on their studies, the energy to play and the ability to succeed.
Love for the Land
With sustainability in mind, WFP has also implemented school agriculture programs (SAP). In some 250 schools across the country, children learn to grow a variety of vegetables on school grounds with their teachers’ guidance.
“Apart from supplementing their nutritional requirements, SAP also aims to inculcate a sense of love for and value of farming,” says Dungkar, who as a little boy worked alongside his classmates in a WFP and Oxfam-supported school vegetable garden twice a week — an earlier incarnation of SAP.
The love of the land remains clear.
“The vegetables here are organic and fresh,” says Karma Yangzom, a student at the Lower Secondary School in Yurung. “I can eat them confidently without worrying if there are any harmful chemicals.”
Karma, who serves as captain of SAP at her school, grows cabbage, chili peppers, peanuts, cauliflower, spinach and carrots.
“There is a sense of pride and joy in their faces,” Dungkar says about students involved in SAP. “I believe they get a different feeling and perspective when they dirty their hands with the soil and observe vegetables growing.”
Classes on gardening and agriculture have been a part of Karma’s school curriculum since 2002, not only providing nutrition to the students’ three meals but also improving their knowledge of farming.
“I want to be a doctor when I grow up. But if all else fails, at least I know I can be a good farmer and make a living out of it,” Karma says.
For more than four decades, WFP and the government of Bhutan have worked together to make the school meals program a successful one — so much so that WFP is gradually handing over the program to the government and is aiming to have a completed transition by the end of 2018.
A transition will make the program even more sustainable, one that is locally owned and has an immense appreciation for the land.
The WFP staff at the forefront of this transition process include none other than Dungkar. After more than 10 years of receiving WFP’s school meals, Dungkar eventually became a program officer for WFP in Bhutan. Today, his personal experience provides a lens through which the entire staff and the government can better understand real impact.
“I continue to remain inspired by WFP — not by what it is, but by what it is doing, meaningfully,” he writes. “Lodged somewhere amidst the rugged mountains, in the high Himalayas, seemingly happy, I will continue with this life and purpose.”
Meeting kids like Pelmo and Tashi reminds Dungkar of his own childhood and the promise of a life filled with potential.
“When one has himself come through such stages in life, it is not difficult to feel the angst of penury and look for instant solutions,” he says. “[There are] little, simple things that one can continue to do with visible outcomes.”
Indeed, a simple meal and a love for the land and one another can make all the difference.
— Aliya Karim, World Food Program USA