Cape Town, South Africa

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

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!