Cape Town, South Africa

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

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

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