School (Meals) Graduation
What Does It Take?
For most students, graduating from school is a long process that involves years of studying and hard work. For national governments, “graduating” from a school feeding program is much the same. It involves years of implementation, logistical planning and capacity building before an official hand-over can take place.
Each year, some 66 million school-age children across the globe are kept out of school to work or care for their families. School meals like those provided by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) are crucial to their well being. School meals not only keep students’ tummies full, but they also help keep children focused on their studies and encourage parents to keep their young ones in the classroom.
WFP has been running its school feeding programs for more than 50 years, reaching 17 million children with meals and take-home rations last year in 65 countries. These safety nets help kids receive an education and fulfill their potential. Moreover, a number of school meals programs have graduated from WFP, allowing national governments to take full ownership.
32-year-old Vera Tavares received WFP school meals as a child. In 2010, she said:
“I often used to go to school hungry. Sometimes I went just for the meal. I’d have a snack before class started and another when they let out at 3:30 in the afternoon. Those meals gave me the energy to concentrate on my studies.”
While just 73 percent of youth were enrolled in high school while she was there, Vera completed her studies and even went on to earn a degree in business and economics, thanks in part to WFP’s school meals and the nutrition and motivation they provided. Today, everything has come full circle, and she works as an accountant at Cape Verde’s Ministry of Education. Cape Verde is one of the many countries that have taken over from WFP and now manage their own school feeding programs.
Why hand over a program? Because WFP is working to build sustainable initiatives that ultimately empower communities, local governments and national lawmakers to build a stronger future for the next generation. Every time a WFP school feeding program transitions to a national, government-led program, it is a big deal. Local ownership of safety net programs like school meals allows those programs to become even smarter and more efficient when they’re being run by the communities they are serving. This is exactly what WFP’s school feeding programs are aiming for: providing children with the right nutrition and a good education, while enabling communities to take control and graduate to the next level.
Over the past 45 years, WFP has transitioned 38 school feeding programs. The last country to take over a school meal program from WFP was El Salvador in 2013. Here is an overview of three of these successful handovers.
WFP launched its school feeding program in Botswana the year of the country’s independence and in the midst of a devastating drought in 1966. In 1969, the government created the Department of Food Resources to help manage social protection and drought relief programs, including WFP school meals. The two went hand in hand, providing a safety net for children and families over the years and also when disaster struck.
Ultimately, by 1985, the country’s National Food Strategy included school feeding in its guidelines as one of many interventions to ensure food security. The WFP program finally reached universal coverage in the 1990s, feeding some 250,000 school children.
Talks for a transition began in the early 1980s, but another drought, as well as declining diamond prices — Botswana’s main export — and limited resources forced the program to stay under WFP’s wing. In fact, WFP expanded the program to days when school was not in session in order to help families facing the drought. As Botswana and other countries had seen time and time again, school meals could help families in crisis survive because they were often the only meals they received.
By the early 1990s, the government had become steadily more involved in school-feeding logistics and reporting. Transition discussions began again in 1991, and the country’s entrance into middle-income status in 1994 helped move the program forward. Having middle-income status — based on per capita income — generally makes transition processes more successful, as this means that the country is better able to afford the program and has the institutional frameworks in place to make it work. It is much more stable.
The government gradually took over school feeding in 1993, starting with rural schools and financing 10 percent of the program. By the end of 1997, the government had taken over the entire school feeding program and budget.
Over the years, the national school feeding program in Botswana has advanced with better infrastructure and even a new menu that now takes into account more local foods — like surplus watermelon and other fresh food from local harvests — diversifying the children’s diets and giving back to the local economy.
Four years after its independence in the 1970s, Cape Verde’s government requested WFP to introduce a school-feeding pilot that would provide much-needed food assistance to about 3,000 children in areas prone to malnutrition.
By 1985, the program had expanded to reach 70 percent of all school children in the country, and by 1987, all primary schools were covered by school meals.
In the 1990s, the government took on education reform through meaningful investments in the school system, and rising enrollment meant the school feeding budget was increasing as well. With a more improved economy and close proximity to education for all, the government of Cape Verde began discussions for transition of the school meals program in 1995.
In 1998, the four-year transition process came to an abrupt halt when financial constraints set back school meals across the country. At this time, WFP resumed its leadership role as Cape Verde rebuilt its capacity to take over.
It wasn’t until 2007 that discussions on transition began once more, and this time it was fruitful. The country had progressed to middle-income status, and a clear roadmap and multi-sector commission were developed to guide the transition process forward.
After 31 years of WFP support, Cape Verde officially took over its school feeding program in 2010 and has maintained universal coverage of school meals for its primary school children.
The Dominican Republic’s school feeding program is a unique one in that the government created it in 1978, but relied on the involvement of non-governmental organizations, particularly CARE.
As CARE phased out its work at the end of 1995, WFP arrived to help, providing the food necessary for the government to carry out the program. WFP helped ensure school meals for 119,000 children thanks to the foundation built by its friend and partner CARE. While WFP handled food assistance, monitoring and training in food handling and hygiene, the government handled all logistics and staffing.
In 2000, the program transitioned to a more permanent initiative, which would focus on school children in rural areas and purchase food for school meals through the Ministry of Education.
Because the government was already heavily involved in the program, WFP’s departure in 2005 ran smoothly. The government was left in charge of the entire school feeding program.
The Ministry of Education has received some guidance over the years on areas for improvement, as well as some technical assistance from several United Nations agencies, including WFP, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Today, the government is acting on its own on all aspects of the school feeding program.
National school feeding programs like these are success stories. Just as we celebrate the success of children who study, graduate and go on to take care of their families and communities, we should also celebrate the success of school feeding transition.
Graduation is a huge accomplishment for both WFP and the country at hand. Because ultimately, WFP’s goal in its school feeding initiatives is to stimulate children’s bodies and minds and to help countries take ownership of their school meals.
Because an empowered, sustainable school meals program can lead generations of children to reach their full potential.
By Aliya Karim
World Food Program USA