It is 11 a.m. and the bell for recess rings at Ylamba Public School near the Saclepea Town centre in Nimba County, Liberia. Students with books in hand stream out of class but they are not staying in the school compound. Many are heading home to look for what to eat. Most of them, particularly the girls, will not return because they are expected to contribute to put food on the family table.
Students here usually received a meal at school each day as part of the pilot of a home-grown school meal programme initiated by the government of Liberia and its partners including the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), in which food for the meals was sourced from smallholder farmers within the community. Then funding dried out and the meals have also stopped coming out of the kitchens.
“Since feeding stopped, we have huge problems in our hands,” says Lucy K. Miapah, the principal of the school. “When there are no meals, many go home early.”
School meals are a powerful tool to encourage children to attend school regularly. They promote access to basic education and human capital development, increase enrolment, attendance, retention and improve attention span and academic performance.
Sitting in her small office with walls emblazoned in academic posters, Miapah says the home-grown school meals brought the girls streaming to school and contributed to 7 out of every 9 girls in the school being promoted in the 2016/2017 academic year.
“In a country where we know girl child enrolment is a priority, the feeding programme was helping us get them and keep them here,” says Miapah.
Limited financing for school meals in Liberia means the programmes are almost grinding to a complete halt. WFP, which is the government’s main partner and the lead provider of social and productive safety net interventions through the school meals is struggling. The agency needs US$ 4.2 million to avoid shutting down its project that aims to reach 127,000 children in the most food insecure parts of Liberia.
The Home-Grown School Feeding Programme that was set to gradually replace the traditional school meals programme across the country and boost food production, provide nutritious feeding for students, and inject income into local economy has stalled.
At Mehnpa Public School, located on the outskirts of Saclepea Town, the students still remember that they would not leave the campus once they saw smoke rising from the kitchen. Many long for the local delicacies prepared from yams, cassava, potatoes, palm oil, and smoked fish that they regularly had.
“I have always been thinking in my mind about when we will see food again,” says Grace Saye, a grade 3 student at Mehnpa. When we have food, we stay here until 3 p.m but when there is no food, it can be hard for us.”
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Find out more about WFP’s school meals on wfp.org
-Written by John Monibah