SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA — At 7:30 a.m., over 200 students gather under the roof of a large, open-air building at the Doun Ouv Primary School, 20 km from the city center. Bowls in hand, they wait patiently for a serving of white rice, and fish and spinach soup.
Some students head back for a second serving, while others clean their dishes, wash their hands at a nearby hand-washing station, and head to class. Meanwhile the cooks — women and mothers from the local community — start to prepare for lunch.
“It sounds simple and it is a beautiful program, but it can be very tough.”— Arlene Mitchell, executive director, Global Child Nutrition Foundation
The meals were provided to students for free as part of the Cambodian government’s school meals program. The intervention, originally used as an incentive to get children to school, started in 2003 with overseas in-kind donations of rice, cooking oil, and canned fish, and was implemented by external partners such as the World Food Programme. But in 2015, the government and WFP started to pilot a new model of school meals program, called homegrown school meals, using food produced and purchased from local communities in several schools.
The government plans to be the full direct implementer of the program by 2024, with external partners mostly providing technical support.
Read more on school meals
The move will likely require increased resources from the government, but the program will have “multiplier effects” on the local economy, said Hang Chuon Naron, Cambodia’s minister for education, youth, and sport. Aside from increasing student rates in schools, it has the potential to create jobs in the community and a market for local agricultural products, he said.
The homegrown school meals model has taken hold within the past decade in a number of countries in Africa and Latin America, and Asia has started to catch up, said Arlene Mitchell, executive director of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation.
“They see that it contributes to the economic development of the whole community. Once you start purchasing from those farmers, the farmers have more incentive to invest in better practices. The market is predictable because the kids go to school X number of days each school year and you know how many kids are in the school. So you can start to predict the market and farmers can plan on that market,” Mitchell told Devex, on the sidelines of the recent Global Child Nutrition Forum.
But the shift from the traditional school meal set-up to homegrown school meal programs isn’t so straightforward, and a number of countries in transition — Cambodia included — are encountering challenges in funding, as well as in ensuring there’s a predictable, consistent, and sufficient food supply. Making sure there’s variety and enough nutrition in the meals can also be a challenge.
“You have to figure out prices and seasons, and if you have a drought or you have a flood, what's [going to] happen with that? You have to consider the full menu. You can't just buy rice and not have anything to go with your rice,” Mitchell said.
“It sounds simple and it is a beautiful program, but it can be very tough,” Mitchell said.
For example at Doun Ouv Primary School, where the homegrown school meals program is already in effect, school authorities said they do not have enough kitchen materials and sometimes struggle to pay kitchen cooks. Each cook is paid 50,000 Cambodian riel ($12.24) a month, out of pooled funds that come from school teachers and community members.
Another challenge, according to Naron, is ensuring there’s no interruption in the food supply, particularly during the country’s dry season, when some farmers are unable to plant crops.
In neighboring Laos, where over the next few years the government aims to take over management of the meal program currently implemented by WFP and Catholic Relief Services in several schools, officials say it is important to keep an eye on the supply chain.
“I think there is ... room for … nutrition-sensitive agriculture to be introduced, [and] disaster risk reduction programming as well, to make sure that [the] supply chain remains strong at the community level and ... at the regional level,” said Cornelia Sage, Catholic Relief Services’ chief of party in Laos, who oversees the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Learning and Engaging All in Primary School II project in Savannakhet Province.
The transition process is currently underway, and may take three to seven years to complete, said Sage.
“We also want to stagger it. WFP is going to be transitioning in 2021. We know that. So we want to make sure that the government can actually handle what is being handed over to them,” she said.
The long road to transition
It can take years for countries to fully take over implementation of their school meals program, and once they do, challenges can still arise. In Kenya, the transition took almost a decade. The government started the first phase of its transition in 2009 but the process only ended in June 2018, said Abdi Habat, director of primary education at Kenya’s Ministry of Education.
Habat told Devex the government was moving 100,000 children each year from the WFP program to government-sponsored school meals.
Habat said the budget for school meals is now covered by the government, but WFP remains an active partner, continuously providing capacity building and training, as well as support for program monitoring and evaluation.
The government’s school meals program focuses on arid and semi-arid regions of the country, where food security is an issue. Starting this year, the government also plans to initiate a community-driven school meals program in areas where there is enough food. The goal: to get communities where food is in abundance to organize themselves and provide food for the children, instead of waiting and relying on the government alone.
The initiative could be helpful, as the government’s budget for school meals has been stagnant for two years now, said Habat. That means the government has not been able to expand the reach of its school meals program. At present, it’s reaching 1.6 million school children. The plan is to reach 2 million students by 2022 or 2023, said the government official.
“Our economy is not doing very well. But we hope that in the coming year things will be better, and that our funding for the school meals programs is going to increase, as this is a program that is tied to the food security agenda of [the president],” he said.
Guatemala has been delivering its own school meals program for close to three decades. But Mario Morales, director of the general direction for strengthening the education community at Guatemala’s Ministry of Education, said there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
The government passed a law on school meals in 2017. The law guarantees 180 school days, and therefore school meals, for children of kindergarten and primary-school age. It also increased the government’s budget for school meals per child from $0.15 to $0.60, Morales said.
But the budget didn’t factor in other related costs in running a school meals program, for example, cooking equipment such as stoves, pots, and plates. So parent organizations — which are in charge of the management of school meals in schools, from food selection and procurement to storage, preparation, and meal distribution — seek partnerships to fill the gap.
In addition, the budget for the school meals is fixed. Any increase will need to be negotiated with Congress.
“[The law] considered the amount needed per child, per day, per school meal, but not for the implementation of the program holistically,” Morales said.
Under the law, 50% of food purchased for the school meals program should come from smallholder farmers. But the challenge is that smallholder farmers are not yet ready to take on the task, said the director.
Morales said having a law in place helps guarantee the program continues despite change in government leadership, and defines each ministry’s role in running the program. But based on Guatemala’s experience, he advises countries pilot programs first before developing a law on school meals.
Editor’s Note: The reporter traveled to Siem Reap with support from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.