USDA’s McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program helps reduce hunger and improve literacy and primary education in low-income, food-deficit countries around the world. Today, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) works hand-in-hand with non-profit charitable organizations and others to operate McGovern-Dole programs in 25 countries. One of these partnerships is with Project Concern International (PCI) for a multifaceted school feeding program in northern Tanzania.
FAS caught up with PCI Operations Officer Kara West while visiting Tanzania to glean an insider’s perspective on the program.
- Why did PCI begin this McGovern-Dole program in Tanzania?
PCI began implementing a McGovern-Dole program in Tanzania in 2010 when tens of thousands of children in the Mara region lacked access to basic education as a consequence of food insecurity, challenging environments and limited resources for learning. With the assistance of USDA, PCI now provides school meals daily, which is often the only meal of the day for many children, along with a series of holistic interventions in order to improve literacy and primary education.
- Describe a typical day living in the communities you reach.
One of those children who is now benefiting from the program is 14-year-old Violet. The roosters crowing early in the morning cues the start of Violet’s day and she is ready to help her mother with small chores around the home before participating in the morning prayers. While her parents are off to work in the fields for the day, Violet skips to school to meet her friends and attends a lesson from her teacher who has received a number of training sessions from PCI on improved teaching methodologies. In the early afternoon, she eats a nutritious meal of USDA-provided rice, fortified vegetable oil and beans, complemented with bright green amaranth leaves donated by school parents. Violet’s favorite time of the day is her trip to the library where she enjoys reading one of her favorite books Chatu na Mbwa or The Python and the Dog. Towards the end of her school day, she attends the “Healthy Choices Club” meeting where she learns about healthy eating and exercise. When Violet returns home in the late afternoon, she helps her mother fetch water to use for the next day. She lends a hand cooking dinner and then enjoys one of the library books she brought home before she falls asleep.
PCI is working closely with the local government to ensure young Violet continues to benefit from improved food security and improved education long after PCI and USDA have left the Mara region.
- How has the program impacted the people it serves?
Every time I visit Tanzania, the gratitude for USDA and PCI is evident to me when I see the smiling faces and hear the grateful words from students, teachers, parents and local government administrators. On my last trip, the teachers and students greeted me by saying “Karibu” in Swahili or “You are welcome here” as they repeated “Asante sana” or “Thank you so much”. The impact of the program has been profound in so many aspects. In 2012, the average attendance rate of students was 73.6 percent and it is now 87 percent. Furthermore, USDA and PCI were recently recognized by Mara’s Regional Education Officer as having a positive effect on the outcomes of the recent standard exams in the Mara region which is now in 13th place out of 26 regions (previously in 17th place). The improved exam results are attributed to the program’s efforts distributing school meals, and providing teacher training and health interventions.
- What would surprise people about the program?
The program is so much more than a simple school feeding program. The students are also feeding their appetites for learning when their teachers can use improved school materials and teaching methodologies. Students now can focus on school as their stomachs are full and they are learning about good hygiene, healthy practices and HIV/AIDS prevention during fun, interactive health clubs. Students are learning new skills while working in the school gardens, which they can bring back to share with their parents to improve the variety of foods consumed at home.
- What has been the greatest challenge to overcome in the country?
Although a lack of government resources for a booming population is evident in Tanzania, behavior change is one of the greatest challenges PCI faces in ensuring sustainability of programming. During this next phase of the Food for Education program, PCI will be working closely with parents of preschool children promoting practices that parents can adopt to better prepare their children for school. PCI is seeking to change attitudes of parents and raise the awareness on the importance of education.
- What are you doing on the ground now to ensure the benefits of the program continue even after the program is complete?
During this next phase of the program, PCI will continue collaborating with local stakeholders to mobilize and strengthen the Parent Teacher Associations and district representatives. Together with PCI, these stakeholders developed a sustainability readiness tool which was designed to effectively measure each school’s readiness and capacity to maintain improved literacy, school feeding and other key activities needed at the individual school level for each school to “graduate” out of the program.
I also had the opportunity to visit one of the Women Empowered (WE) groups, and most of the members are also parents of school children. In speaking with the group, I learned of their own contributions to the Food for Education program. They have provided capital and resources for school projects and are using their own power in becoming positive change agents in the community. For example, one of the WE groups under this program pooled savings to purchase cement for the construction of latrines at the school and they encouraged a local business to match their contribution. It’s stories like this one that demonstrate how rural communities will continue to ensure the welfare of school children long after PCI and USDA have exited the region.
- What three words do you think best describe the students, teachers and women farmers you have met in Tanzania and why?
Eager, resilient and committed are the three words that stood out to me as I met many of the community members involved in the program. The students, teachers and school district representatives demonstrated an overwhelming eagerness to learn. During my visit, I noticed how a primary school teacher proudly demonstrated her classroom’s abundant colorful learning resources that she created under the guidance of PCI staff. It also was evident to me how resilient the communities are. In the face of a current drought, parents and farmers were using drought tolerant foods to supplement their diets. In speaking with the Bunda District Commissioner, I was struck by her commitment in working with PCI and ensuring that her team worked closely with our staff in order to glean as much information as possible and to strategize on how to sustain the program over time.