As summer break winds down, children around the world prepare for a new school year. But for some children, going to school is more than making new friends and learning new subjects; it’s an opportunity to eat a full, nutritious meal.
The Foreign Agricultural Service’s (FAS) McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program helps provide these meals to children in low-income, food-deficit countries that are committed to universal education. The program aligns with President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative and has helped feed millions of children over the years. One example of the success of this program can be found in the Republic of Congo, where the undernourishment rate of children is estimated at nearly 35 percent of the population.
Since 2001, FAS has implemented four McGovern-Dole Programs in Congo through the non-profit organization, International Partnership for Human Development (IPHD). During this time, IPHD distributed about 30,000 metric tons of U.S.-donated foods (rice, beans, potato flakes and vegetable oil) to nearly 150,000 pre-school and primary school-age Congolese children. IPHD also supported school infrastructure, parent-teacher associations and children’s health needs.
When low-income families with limited food supply learn the local school is providing lunch, enrollment increases and families begin to take a greater interest in their children’s education and the needs of the local school. In some schools, both children and parents work in school gardens, said Dr. William Pruzensky, IPHD president.
“Lunch increases children’s learning ability and desire to stay in school,” he said. “As a result, a larger number of children reach and complete the fifth grade than prior to the existence of the program. Many children find the learning experience exciting and rewarding and go on to secondary school, which increases the literacy rate ofthe Republic of Congo.”
IPHD’s efforts helped increase Congolese school enrollment by nearly 24 percent. The drop-out rate has decreased by more than 50 percent and absenteeism—mainly due to malaria—decreased 66 percent. More than 70 percent of students in IPHD school-feeding programs own a mosquito net, compared to 31 percent of students who aren’t in a program.
Because of the FAS McGovern Dole program success in the country, the Congolese Ministry of Education asked IPHD to help develop a school lunch program in secondary schools and to help expand Congolese adult literacy program beyond the 15,000 adults currently enrolled.
Organizations conducting McGovern-Dole projects must develop plans to help the country graduate from the program and continue the program on its own. In 2010, the Congolese government approved a plan that gradually decreases the amount of U.S.-donated food and increases the Congolese government’s logistical and administrative support. The Congolese government is expected to take complete responsibility for the school lunch program by the end of 2015.
“Developing a self-sustainable school lunch program helps sustain child health improvements,” Pruzesnky said. “This ultimately leads to a better educated citizen who will participate more in the socio-economic and political life of the nation.”
Currently, FAS funds 37 active McGovern Dole Food for Education agreements with 16 cooperating sponsors in 26 countries, assisting more than five million beneficiaries. To date, the program has provided meals to more than 28 million children.
This post originally appeared on the USDA Blog.