By Jennifer Brookland
For kids in the impoverished and largely inaccessible region of Bui in North West Cameroon, hunger pains used to easily drown out the voices of schoolteachers. With no food available at school, students would spend breaks between classes foraging in neighboring farms or in the bush for wild fruits like guava or oranges. Most never returned to school after the long search, especially if they remained empty handed, and empty bellied.
Hungry and tired, students who could not find food often returned home to wait for their mothers to come back from the fields to cook dinner. Exhausted from the daily struggle, malnourished and unable to concentrate, some of these students never returned to school at all. Those who did often performed poorly in class, and on tests.
For the first time in their history, two schools in Bui were honored in 2010 with an Award of Academic Excellence, after 100 percent of their students passed the national examinations. The schools were project sites for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Food for Education Program (FFE), implemented bythe nonprofit Counterpart International.
The schools’ head teachers and parent-teacher association president credited the schools’ star performance to the FFE program in remarks they made after the awards were announced.
Revealing the link between nutrition and education
Counterpart began implementing the program in 50 villages in 2009, working with parent-teacher associations, farmers and local leaders, as well as the Ministry of Education to ensure communities were involved in the program and in their children’s health and education.
The goal extended beyond providing food to increasing school enrollment, attendance and nutritional status of children— particularly girls.
During the four-year program, Counterpart expanded the program to 92 villages, providing nearly 34,000 children and families with more than 8.7 million meals and take-home rations.
It also developed a health and nutrition curriculum to teach pupils how to stay healthy, and worked with parent-teacher associations to build latrines, kitchens and storage areas.
The results were self-evident: Average attendance rates in project schools increased from 93.5 percent at the start of the project to 99.6 percent in the 2011-12 school year.
Kids who had stopped going to school came back in order to get the hot lunches, and some schools in the program saw enrollment jump more than 20 percent.
Up from the original two honorees, 85 percent of project schools had 100 percent pass rates on the national primary school exams for the 2011-2012 academic year—a remarkable achievement when less than 15 percent of schools in Cameroon send all of their students onward to secondary school.
A community effort that can continue
To ensure these innovative and integrated initiatives to keep kids healthy and in school would continue after the program finished, Counterpart worked with school communities to plant gardens and small farms so that schools would have supplemental food as well as income.
Teachers, students and parents received seeds and farm tools, and information on appropriate planting densities, use of organic manure, field and pest management and post-harvest storage.
“Our potato yields in the past hardly exceeded ten tons per hectare, but this year we recorded an amazing 20 tons per hectare,” said Mr. Ndze Wilfred, head teacher of Meluf Catholic School. “We are very grateful to the Food for Education project for training us on modern cropping techniques, supporting us with improved seeds, farm tools and other inputs.”
Counterpart involved 4,260 community members by teaching them about food preparation and storage, post-harvest management and developing school action plans.
Today, vegetables, beans, cocoyam, potatoes, maize and soybean are grown in each of the 92 project schools in Bui. Some schools are able to provide several meals per week to students from food harvested exclusively in the gardens, or bought with proceeds from their homegrown produce.
“We started our school feeding with produce from our gardens before we received commodities from USDA,” said Saka Angelina Yah, a member of one of the parent-teacher associations. “Now, we are quite certain that we will be able to continue providing food for the children in the schools even after the project ends, thanks to this school garden.”
And engaging the whole community in learning allowed nearby farmers to increase the productivity and revenue of their own farms and gardens.
Success that leads to commitment
The participatory approach and clear successes led some traditional leaders to donate land for school gardens, and several government councils have committed budgetary allocations for school feeding programs. Many other schools in the region indicated their interest in bringing Counterpart’s health and nutrition curriculum into their own programs.
Counterpart has encouraged the Government of Cameroon to prioritize school feeding in the basic education sector, and it seems inclined to do so.
“Your experience shall be replicated in other regions of the country,” said Alica Montheu, director of school canteens at the Ministry of Basic Education, after a project visit. “Other countries should visit your program because it is a satisfying inspiration for schools. We shall return to Yaoundé quite satisfied.”