Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Intersection of Religion, Culture and Poverty: Intro to Thai Lunches

Good afternoon, everyone! How are you doing? It is quite warm in Bangkok today, 37 degrees C, so 98.6 degrees F! It’s amazing and baffling that it isn't summer yet ... meanwhile back in my home town:

[Not sad to be missing that - at all]

This last week, I spent time in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. It was incredible, beautiful, and hot! Here are few pictures of my travels:

[Chiang Mai is often called the cultural capital of Northern Thailand. Truly so, it definitely has more cultural escapades/activities to do than Bangkok.]

[School visit in Chiang Mai!]

Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples (a temple is also called a "Wat") in the old city - when you walk around the old city, temples are everywhere. I wonder what the percentage of the old city’s surface area is taken up by temples ... I would wager 30-50 percent.

I want to talk about the intersection of religion, culture, and poverty. A school lunch program is considered a social welfare program, as it directly responds to poverty and malnutrition in communities. Perceptions of poverty and social welfare vary between cultural contexts - and I find the Thai perception of poverty to be especially interesting.

Just a note before we jump in - I will be quoting/using several Buddhist resources as a guide; since I have only had indirect experiences with Buddhism, I do not want to characterize it in any light. I will let the experts share instead!

Thai Buddhism and Thai Culture
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, with over 90 percent of the population identifying as Buddhist. Though there are differences between the multiple branches of Buddhism, two fundamental features of Buddhism are Karma and reincarnation. Karma "operates in the universe as the continuous chain reaction of cause and effect. It is not only confined to causation in the physical sense but also it has moral implications. 'A good cause, a good effect; a bad cause a bad effect' is a common saying. In this sense karma is a moral law." Simply, one’s actions has consequences.

Reincarnation, or "Rebirth," is generally well-known among laypeople. Buddhists believe in “samsara,” which holds that life is a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Reincarnation is the process of exiting a life and entering into the next. As a life continues through these cycles, one can escape this cycle by achieving Nirvana. Nirvana, or “enlightenment,” is achieved when one is able to remove himself from outside pressures and desires.

It is important to clarify what reincarnation is not:

“Reincarnation is not a simple physical birth of a person; for instance, John being reborn as a cat in the next life. In this case John possesses an immortal soul which transforms to the form of a cat after his death. This cycle is repeated over and over again ... This notion of the transmigration of the soul definitely does not exist in Buddhism.”

When combining reincarnation and karma, poverty is simplified to a “bad effect” of poor moral decisions - which has significant implications for the Thai perception of poverty. If a Thai person is born into poverty or with some form of chronic illness or disability, this is considered a consequence of poor decision-making (“bad karma”) in his previous life. Thai culture enforces that he “deserves” his situation, resulting in fewer services and less empathy towards these individuals. The belief, or “remedy” for a chronic ailment, is that if the individual has good karma in his current life, he will be wealthier and healthier in his next life.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Quickly jumping ahead ... Thai school meals

Hi everyone! As I mentioned before, I have been incredibly busy and haven't had a lot of time to translate my thoughts and experiences from Africa into blog posts. I just landed in Bangkok, and am visiting Thai schools tomorrow. But, in order to keep up (somewhat), here is a short video showcasing school lunches in Thailand:

The first ten minutes relate to school meals - feel free to give it a watch!

Until next time,


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Shift

Good morning, everyone. I am writing while on a plane from Cape Town to Bangkok!

[Can you see the mountains in the distance?]

I want to jump right into the main content for today - and this blog post represents a fundamental shift in the way I understand and view school feeding programs (as they call them in Namibia and South Africa) in Africa and southeast Asia. If you would like to know more about Namibia before reading this post, check out the brief description of Namibia here.

Transitioning from Europe to Africa

Until I landed in Namibia, I had only visited European school feeding programs. While there is noticeable diversity and disparities between these programs, a common thread linking these programs is that all* European programs were more-or-less benefit programs. If your child goes to school in Finland, she receives a school meal to aid in her learning. Or, if your child comes from a low-income background in Italy, she is entitled to a free or subsidized school meal. Regardless of whether the child receives a meal, though, she will go to school.

I consider European (and American) school feeding programs as benefit programs because their potential impact pales in comparison to the potential impact of African programs. This is not to suggest a lack of poverty or malnutrition the results in European families - malnutrition most definitely exists. School feeding does impact European children’s ability to focus and succeed in school.

However, European children are required to attend school, and there are significant legal and sociocultural penalties to remove one’s child from school. Regardless of whether a child gets a school meal or not, the child will most likely attend school; the penalty of keeping your child outside of school is greater than the benefit of school feeding.

This is where the distinction lies in school feeding programs in Africa. In Namibia and South Africa (as well as the majority of other African programs), investment in school meals is an investment in community development.

The shift: school feeding as social intervention
Education in Namibia, despite being an “upper-middle income country” according to the US State Department (see why this is a misleading title here), is poor. The Apartheid ideology (Namibia was governed by South Africa until the 1990s, thus receiving exposure/ingraining of Apartheid) resulted in many disparities in the quality and access to education among Namibians. Racial disparities and educational gaps are significant - not to say that gaps haven’t improved since Apartheid ended. According to UNICEF, the survival rate to Grade 8 has increased from 52% in 1992 to 77% in 2008, which is an encouraging statistic. However, Namibia still has a long way to go.

Children are also legally required to go to school, like in Europe. However, for many Namibian families, it is too expensive to send their children to school. Losing help around the house, the cost of uniforms and books, transporting the child to school - these costs are too burdensome for some families to justify sending their children to school.

This is where school feeding comes in. It is well known that an avenue to exit poverty is education; graduating from high school and/or higher education, and getting a higher-paying job can break the inter-generational cycle of poverty. School feeding can serve as a family’s justification for sending their children to school. A child can receive up to 16 percent of his meals in school, which is a sizable burden lifted from a family’s shoulders. School feeding is a social intervention for families - in addition to providing meals for children to concentrate on learning, it can break the cycle of poverty and encourage children to continue learning.

That’s awesome! Is it successful?
This is a tough question to answer. Undoubtedly, school feeding is impactful in the short-term. Anecdotally, Namibian and South African teachers have told me that some children solely come to school to eat. Truly, when I visited schools on Monday, after a weekend (and no school feeding), the number of children lining up for meals was double that of Friday. And while they are eating, they are learning.

However, long term impact analyses show mixed results. Some show that school feeding does keep children in school longer, as well as increased enrollment for girls and children with HIV. Other studies have shown that when comparing schools with and without school feeding, there are no significant differences in enrollment. In Namibia and parts of South Africa, school feeding is only guaranteed in primary school, so it makes sense that long-term impact is partially compromised.

I am unsure of where I stand in this debate. Theoretically, it makes sense that food will serve as an impetus for school enrollment. But there are many other factors that keep children from school: gang violence (It isn’t uncommon for children to be late or absent from school due to violence occurring in their neighborhoods.), domestic violence, instability and frequent mobility in the home. A child needs more than a free meal to combat the traumas, evade the traps of poverty, and rewrite their family history’s relation to poverty. Wraparound support is totally necessary - but realistically, school feeding might be the only intervention a government can provide at the moment.

I’m not sure if this trend will continue into SE Asia, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Leaving Europe behind has been an amazing, emotional experience. I stepped out of places that have amazing meals but are definitely less important for a child’s social mobility … into places that don’t have enough funding to provide meals that some children are desperately asking for.

I have been incredibly moved while in Africa, and have been extremely busy working in the schools. More to come on that in the future. Thank you for your patience in receiving blog posts, and I look forward to sharing my travels with y’all in the future. Have a peaceful day!

* European programs refer to the countries that I studied school meals in: Italy, Finland, Sweden, Croatia, United Kingdom.

World Feeding Programme
Rethinking School Feeding - WFP
Bundy & Alderman 2011
Why Implement School Feeding? - WFP

Meat and Sweet: Welcome to Namibian Food Culture

Hi everyone! I didn't realize that this blogpost never published online (I suppose that's Namibian wifi for ya!), so it is a little outdated/distant from where I am in Bangkok, Thailand. Enjoy!
Good afternoon! I hope you are well, wherever you are in the world. I’m currently working and basking in the delightful Swakopmund sun. Swakopmund is a coastal, highly German-influenced “city” in Namibia. When you read about the population size of Namibia, you’ll see why the term “city” is a bit loose.

In earlier blog posts, I delved into the concept of food culture. If you need a refresher, feel free to take a look.

I spent a lot of time in London before coming to Namibia, and didn’t take much notice to the food culture of the UK; it seemed very similar to that of the United States, in that it has two distinct characteristics: an emerging health food culture that is juxtaposed with a highly processed fast food culture.

Image result for school dinners united kingdom fish n chips

Namibia’s food culture is quite distinct; I picked up on it in the first few days. I’ll explain it below, but first want to point out an interesting point of difference between European food culture and Namibian food culture as it pertains to school lunch programs. European food cultures are clearly prevalent in their school lunch programs. For example, Italian school lunches are pasta-heavy as a reflection of Italy’s food culture, London’s food culture (see picture above) - Europe’s food culture translates into the daily meals served in school feeding programs. What you see citizens eating, you’ll likely see it in the lunchroom.

In contrast, Namibia’s food culture does not translate to the meal program. To maximize the number of children being fed, Namibian school meals consist of a fortified maize blend. While community members can contribute extra food to school meals, the only food being served is this maize blend.  

This brings up the thought: if the Namibian school feeding program could expand to incorporate other foods besides the fortified maize blend (called “mealie meal”), will the meals reflect its food culture? I guess only the future will tell!

Namibian Food Culture

In two simple words, Namibian food culture is meat and sweet.

Meat in Namibia
Meat is the staple of Namibian cuisine. I’ve met many Namibians who say that a meal is incomplete without meat. The most common way to cook meat in Namibia is to braai it - that is, to barbecue it with delicious spices.

Image result for braai
Braai = similar to American BBQ

Not only is meat very important to the Namibian diet, but specific meats are prioritized over others. Lamb and beef are preferred to the extent that I heard a Namibian say that chicken isn’t considered meat.

Of this meat section, I would say 80% of the meat section is beef or lamb.

[This section doesn’t even include the butcher section! I took another photo of the full length meat section, but could't find the photo for some reason. Needless to say, this wasn't the whole meat section. In comparison to American grocery stores, the prevalence of meat in Namibian grocery stores (in my opinion) is much higher than in America.]

No vegetables? Namibians definitely eat vegetables. However, every time I ate with Namibians, we braaied. My only hypothesis for the high prioritization of meat (rather than the typical assumptions, more protein, it tastes better, etc.) is that meat is slightly cheaper and more readily available. Since so much of the country is desert, Namibia imports most of its produce from South Africa. This drives up the cost of produce, making it less appealing than meat. For example, a package of ground beef is similar in price to a large bag of apples. In contrast, farming cattle is quite common in Namibia. You’ll commonly see cows dotted along the highways and nomadic shepherds traveling with their goat herds.

---- A quick tangent: I’ve been pondering the role of “food presence” in food culture recently, due to Namibia’s strong preference to meat. A question for further inquiry: If an individual sees a specific food in society more than another, does that food’s presence influence the individual’s diets? Many Namibian children see cattle daily, and they eat cattle daily. If the Namibian landscape was painted with fields of crops, would that influence the amount of vegetables a Namibian eats? Research shows that if a child grows up in a smoking environment, they are much more likely to smoke as an adult. Does this extend to the presence of food in an individual’s environment, too?

Sweet, sweet Namibia

The amount of candy was overwhelming. I scoured the sweet section for a dark chocolate bar (in which the cocoa content is 50+ percent, meaning that cocoa should be the first ingredient on the ingredient list). I could not find a single bar that had cocoa as the first ingredient - sugar was always first!

[Even savoury snacks contained sugar!]

Food and drink in Namibia are unnecessarily sweet. The peanut butter, yogurts, juices, even chips have sugar in them. Cans of sweet corn are even sweetened with sugar! I have no theories as to why foods are so sweet. There are a few recognizable brands (Doritos, Cadbury, Milka), but definitely more brands I’ve never seen before. So, I don’t think the American sugar industry has a significant stake in Namibia. I’ll keep you updated, I’ll ask around as to why sweet foods are so common!

Friday, January 20, 2017

All About Namibia

Happy inauguration day, everyone! Regardless of which candidate you voted for, I hope you have found peace and hope for the upcoming four years. Being outside of the US has definitely aided in that process, despite being frequently challenged and asked to defend American politics.

Also, a brief aside - my access to Wifi in Namibia is quite limited, which has made publishing blog posts quite difficult. Thanks for your patience, and hopefully better wifi is yet to come!


Had you heard of Namibia before? I hadn’t heard of it prior to preparing my application for the Keegan Fellowship. This blog post is to establish some background information on Namibia, before we jump in on its school feeding program.

Namibia: The basics, and clarifying the misleading basics
Namibia is located on the coast of southwestern Africa, right above South Africa. Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, and had been a colony of South Africa since the end of WWII. The country has strong German, Dutch, and Afrikaans influence.

A Brief History
Namibia is home to at least 11 ethnic groups, with beautiful languages and cultures. The San, also called Bushmen, are the most famous cultural group in Namibia and are believed to be the oldest tribe in human history. The various ethnic groups traveled through and thrived in all terrains of Namibia.

Germany colonized Namibia (then called Deutsch Südwestafrika, or “German Southwest Africa”) in 1884 and maintained control until WWI. After Germany lost the war and its territories, the League of Nations “gave” Namibia to South Africa.  

During their time in Namibia, the Germans caused a lot of bloodshed; the Herero and Namaqua wars in the early 1900s wiped out 50-70 percent (24,000 to 65,000 people) of the Herero cultural group and 50 percent (10,000) of the Nama cultural group. In contrast, 150 German soldiers died.

The relationship between German South-West Africa and South Africa was … contentious. South Africa clung onto South-West Africa until war broke out in the late 1980s. The opposition party responsible for igniting the revolution, SWAPO, is still in power today. For a detailed look into the relationship between South Africa and Namibia, take a look here.

Despite being a large country, the population of Namibia is only 2.3 million citizens. The population density of Namibia is only 2.78 persons per square kilometer. In contrast, neighboring Angola has a population density of 20.07 persons per sq km, and the US is 20.35 persons per sq km. Most Namibians live in the northern part of Namibia, called the Caprivi Strip, or in the capital, Windhoek. A significant portion of Namibia’s geography is desert, which partly explains why the population is so concentrated in northern Namibia.

The Economics of Namibia
If you were to google “Namibia,” many websites would list Namibia as an “upper middle-income” African country. However it is important to clarify that while it is upper middle-income, wealth disparity is extreme in Namibia. In 2015, it had the highest GINI index in the world, meaning that its wealth polarization was higher than any other country. Wealth polarization is somewhat correlated with skin color; though White people take up only 6 percent of the population, they own almost 30 percent of all land in Namibia. This is likely reminiscent of Apartheid in Namibia when it was controlled by South Africa. Though locals have said that Namibia did not experience Apartheid as severely as South Africa, Namibian townships (the locations where Black people could legally live during Apartheid) carry disproportionate levels of poverty.

Image result for gini index

Currently, 27.6 percent of Namibians live in poverty, and 35 percent of Namibians live on less than $1 per day. Poverty tends to be more concentrated in rural areas, though major cities do have I’ll be writing about this later, but this wealth disparity creates an environment where Namibia’s school feeding programme can have a significant impact on breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

School Lunch Political Cartoons

Hi everyone!

I occasionally make internet searches of the US's National School Lunch Program because I want to make sure that I don't miss any news that come out about school lunches. It's amazing how being abroad can skew one's access to news!

While I was doing the good ol' Google search "school lunches," I noticed a Google suggestion that I hadn't noticed before ... "school lunch political cartoons." Oh ho ho.

I love political cartoons. How had I not thought to search this earlier?! Here are a few of my favorites, as well as the accompanying blog posts that discuss similar issues portrayed in the cartoons.

[This cartoon was the most perplexing to me ... This cartoon was made in 2012, around the time when  modern nutritional standards were beginning to be established... if you understand what this picture is getting at, please comment below!]

[This one was tough to see, but sadly I can't disagree with it. While Michelle Obama's changes to school lunches have been wholly needed, I believe we are still missing the equilibrium of "healthy" and "realistic;" almost all children will prefer highly processed, fat and sugar-laden meals, the challenge is creating a school and home environment that make eating healthily mainstream.]

[No words necessary!]

[I LOVE this cartoon!!]

[Big Ag = Big Agriculture or Agribusiness]

Aren't these wonderful, yet equally disheartening? It is easy to be cynical about big business's role in governmental spending. But, given the immense amount of work that has been done on school meals in the last 8 years, there is definite hope for the welfare of this welfare program. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy New Year!

Hi everyone! Happy New Year! I hope you had a very merry holiday season (“Frohe Weihnachten” - “Merry Christmas” in German). I have been here in Germany for the holidays, but have also been a bit all over the place over the last month.

The Christkind und ich!

I haven’t written a blog post in awhile, mainly because I’ve been exploring different parts of Europe, and that I haven’t had consistent wifi over the last week. (It’s amazing how reliant I have become on wifi!). Expect some blog posts in the near future, as I’ll be in a stable place in a few days! But to recap over the last few weeks...

I was in London for a few weeks, which was absolutely amazing. I visited a few schools, worked with a few different organizations that are tangentially related to school lunches, and guzzled liters of delicious tea. I’ll write about this in a future blog post, but the UK has been wonderful for my research experience - I believe it is the most similar to the US program out of all of the European programs I’ve studied. I met some amazing Vanderbilt alumni, got back into soccer, and really just enjoyed being. Just being.

My best friend, Emily, came to visit me less than two weeks before Christmas, and we spent the majority of our time in the Balkans. I’ll also be posting a short blog post about my time in the Balkans, as it has been my favorite region of all Europe to be in.  It’s a historically-rich and tumultuous place. Emily and I specifically went to Podgorica, Kotor and Budva in Montenegro; Skopje, Macedonia; and (on accident), Belgrade, Serbia.

Downtown Skopje, Macedonia

When I say, “on accident” … we really were not supposed to be in Belgrade! A word to the wise if anyone is considering traveling in the Balkans: if the bus website says there is an overnight bus online, don’t believe it until you have the ticket in your hand!

The bus website said that there was a bus going from Budva to Skopje. However, when we arrived to purchase our tickets, the receptionists shot us a “... really?” look and told us there was no bus until three days later. Woof. The only way out of Budva for the next few days was to go to Belgrade.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, child and closeup
On a bus! I would wager that we spent about 5 hours flying on this trip, and 25 hours on bus rides.

I wasn’t too upset with going to Belgrade, though, it is my favorite European city! Once we made it down to Skopje, we were in the land of the statues. I kid you not, there are statues all over Skopje. We saw at least two hundred statues in our 2.5 day visit. While on a walking tour of the city, the tour guide said that the Macedonian government has “a very serious condition: copy/paste syndrome.” The mayor of Skopje and other governmental officials copied monuments (such as the Spanish Steps, bull statues from other European capitals, etc.) and pasted them in Skopje. It was both amusing and eery to see monuments “resurface” in Macedonia.

We flew back to London, Emily left, and I then went to Germany. I landed in Köln (Cologne) and visited the beautiful Christmas markets!

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, sky and outdoor
The entrance to the Christmas Market!

Köln’s character is incredibly fun and funny. The tour guide said that the goal is get by in life while doing the least to do so! Call it laziness, call it being clever, but this concept manifests itself around the city! The government discovered ancient Roman ruins while installing a parking garage, and wanted to build a museum to highlight the ruins. Rather than build a building and move the ruins into the building, they just took away a few parking spaces in the parking garage and put on the “exhibit” there. Bahaha it was really fun listening to the Colognese culture - and have you heard of Carnival?

Next, I ended up in Straubing, Germany, a village in Bavaria. For those who do not know much about Bavaria, it was a separate country up until 1871. Even though it’s been merged with Germany for hundreds of years, it is incredibly patriotic to its Bavarian roots.

Bayrisches Familienfoto mit Dirndl & Lederhosen
Oktoberfest, dirndls, lederhosen, are all Bavarian!

Though I didn’t buy one, I did get the opportunity to try on a dirndl or two!

The Bavarian accent is also quite difficult to understand, which made for equally amusing and confusing conversations. I stayed with my American friend Monika, and her Bavarian boyfriend’s family in Straubing. It was so amazing. The food was delicious, Deutschmama and Deutschpapa (“German mom” and “German dad”) were so kind and fun to talk to, and being with loved ones during the holidays was really meaningful for me.

 Homemade Plaetzchen ("Christmas cookies")

"Downtown" Straubing

And then came the post-Christmas shopping. :) The temperature in Munich, Germany is pretty cold right now, about 20 F throughout the day. On January 3rd, I’ll be in Windhoek, Namibia, which is experiencing summer temperatures of 80+ F. I basically purchased a new wardrobe, which isn’t that many clothes to begin with! ;) A few shirts, a pair of pants, some new socks. Traveling light is helpful.

Tonight, I’m leaving Munich, where I’ve been at for the last few days, to go to Windhoek, Namibia. Everything about traveling to southern Africa feels like starting a new chapter. It’s a new year, a new continent, and I’m halfway done with my fellowship. It’s a bit strange, I feel like I’ve been gone from the United States for a really long time, but it also feels like things are moving more quickly. Though I still have half of my Fellowship to complete, I sense that the latter half will fly by.

Since I am halfway done, I want to take this time to thank you for following my blog. Even though I don’t know personally who is reading my blog, it is encouraging to know that you care about my journey. Traveling without a consistent community is difficult, so the small things - such as seeing that people are reading my posts - quite helpful for feeling like y’all are with me.


I got to use a squatty potty for the first time!