From farms to schools After Ebola, a different kind of school meals in Liberia

Lunch at Pioneers Foundation Academy school where more than 250 students have daily meals made of vegetables, and fish. WFP/John MonibahLunch at Pioneers Foundation Academy school where more than 250 students have daily meals made of vegetables, and fish. WFP/John Monibah

Farmers in Liberia have been some of the hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic (2014-2016) as it prevented them from cultivating their fields, harvesting or selling their crops. It is only this year that farmers could fully resume their normal activities.

More than 600,000 people – about 16 percent of the population – face hunger. In most counties, the malnutrition rate is over 40 percent.

Liberia is also home to the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world, with nearly two-thirds of primary-aged children not accessing school.

With the Ebola outbreak declared over this June, the Government of Liberia developed a plan for the recovery of both the agricultural and educational sectors. To support this, the World Food Programme (WFP) aims to double its school meals in 2016-2017, funding permitting, to reach nearly 300,000 children with daily meals, including meals made from nutritious, locally grown food.

Billboards, slogans warning of Ebola or giving instructions on how to stir away from it are mostly gone. Buses, vans display slogans such as “Life just got better” instead.

Nimba county - bordering Guinea and Ivory Coast, in the north of the country - is a crushing mass of green, a vast botanical wonderland in which people were allowed to settle. Set against this backdrop, there are school buildings in earthy colours where kids in neat and well-tailored uniforms seem eager to learn.

Ask them what they would like to become when they grow up, and most will answer – ‘a doctor’, ‘a nurse’. Not surprisingly since among these children, you will find Ebola survivors or children who lost parents to Ebola such as Reny and Bill.

Time for lunch

It is lunch time and rows of children sit outside the school building with their plates topped with cassava, plantains, beans and eddoes (small root vegetable).

“It is delicious…I could eat this every day,” says a giggly Anitha (grade 2).

“The thing I want you to know about this food is that it makes me feel free and strong. I did not know we could eat this food; in my house, we eat rice every day,” chips in Sarah (grade 6).

“I sometimes come to school hungry but when I eat here, I feel full and good,” says Aldo (grade 6).

“I live with my dad and other siblings now <after losing mom to Ebola>. There are times when I have no food for dinner. I am happy to come to school, and have food here,” says Bill (grade 3).

As part of its school meals programme, WFP started a pilot home-grown school meals project in June in Nimba county. Each month, WFP buys about 14 metric tons of cassava, beans, peppers, eddoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, fish and palm oil from farmers. All going to some 3,000 students in 12 schools this year – double from the schools targeted in June. This is also the first time, these children have a school lunch.

The programme is to gradually replace the current traditional school meals programme (based mainly on rice) with the aim to use food produced by Liberian farmers. It also promotes the use of vegetables to encourage a more varied and nutritious diet for Liberian children whose main staple food has been rice.

The cooks

In the yard of the United Liberia Inland Church School in Saclepea, three cooks are busy peeling and chopping. Each day, they cook for about 120 children. Lucy has three children of her own in school.

“I often sit quietly and look at the children eat and enjoy their meals. It brings joy to see them. This is a blessing to me and many other parents; it saves me lunch money and when my children come home, they go playing or do their homework. They have a lot of energy and don’t seem to care to eat as much as before at home,” says Lucy.

The farmers

It takes 10 months for the cassava to fully grow. When it does, it grows amidst a jungle of other intertwining vegetation. It is a tough job to grow cassava, say the farmers. Yet, they want to grow more of it as of this year.

“Now that we can sell them to the schools, we know that our cassava is needed and we can not only sell it at a good price, but also regularly,” says Jimama one of the 150 farmers who sells food for school meals this year via WFP and its partner, the Centre for Women Agriculture Programme.

Kou and Lauretta, who grow cassava and plantain, explain that their income has doubled since selling their produce to WFP, and they continue to sell whatever surplus they have in the market.

“The money helps us have more food for our families, and cover medical costs, or buy clothes,” they add.

The programme doesn’t only bring nutritional benefits for students, but also increased income generation opportunities for farmers, and sustainable development for local communities.

The girls

To help secondary school girls stay in school, WFP provides girls and their families with take-home food rations – 12 kilograms of rice and 1 litre of oil per month.

In this school in Saclepea, 21 girls – between 13 to 18 years old – take rice and oil back to their families. “My parents were so surprised when I first went home with the rice. It is of big help for all of us…,” says 16-years-old Aisha who is set on becoming a nurse.

“During Ebola, it was hard. I couldn’t go out. I missed school. I missed my friends. It is good to be back,” she adds.

According to Aisha’s principal, since the take home rations were introduced last year, the number of girls in grade 4 to 6 went up from 12 to 21. A small number, but big steps towards closing the gender gap in Liberia’s secondary school education. For comparison, in Aisha’s school, there are 50 boys in grade 4-6.

While WFP has enough funds to cover the needs of the home-grown school meals for this school year, traditional meals for more than 290,000 students are at risk as of January.

If urgent funding of US7 million does not come in time, WFP will be forced to reduce its take-home food rations and traditional school meals as of January, and gradually halt these programmes.

WFP’s key supporters of the home-grown school meals, take-home food rations and Purchase for progress (rice purchased for school meals) programmes are the USAID/Food for Peace and Japan.

Story and photos by Adel Sarkozi and John Monibah