After a year of meticulous planning, the day finally arrived for the launch of Counterpart International’s USDA-funded McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition (McGovern-Dole) and Local and Regional Food Aid Procurement (LRP) projects on April 18th, 2019.

Celebrated in the heart of Senegal’s former capital, Saint-Louis, the much-anticipated full-day workshop gathered over 200 critical project stakeholders, including U.S. Ambassador Tulinabo Salama  Mushingi, Counterpart President and CEO Dr. Joan Parker, Ministry of National Education members, USDA staff, the Counterpart team, and partner representatives  from NCBA-CLUSA,  Associates in Research & Education for Development, and Save the Children.  Saint-Louis community leaders, teachers, and students were also in attendance to discuss the importance of sustainability and graduation for this second phase of the project.

The McGovern-Dole project will focus on improving student attendance rates across the previously-targeted 270 preschools and primary schools by providing nutritious daily school meals; improving dietary practices, school infrastructure, access to sanitation, and literacy skills; and building the capacity of government personnel to guide, implement, and maintain school feeding programs.

The LRP project, which supports Counterpart’s USDA-funded feeding program, will increase the capacity of schools and the government to efficiently procure local commodities. The project’s objectives are to strengthen the producer group’s ability to provide high-quality, nutritious goods, improve the nutrition of students, and procure cow pea and millet to support the capacity of selected communities to produce orange flesh sweet potatoes and mung beans for purchase by schools as a part of providing school meals.

Both McGovern-Dole and LRP projects support the overarching goal of ensuring that school management committees can serve as a sustainable pathway to community-led school feeding, even after support from USDA comes to an end. This will involve establishing a national-level implementation strategy to expand the capacity and commitment at all levels, from schools to districts to the national level.

The crisp and sunny morning began with a moving skit by preschoolers from Fidei Dagana preschool, a Counterpart beneficiary school in Saint-Louis, depicting the importance of school meals for their learning and development. In the scene, while a “teacher” is repeating his lesson, one “student” faints from overwhelming hunger, unable to continue. It is not until Counterpart’s school meal intervention that the student was able to be adequately fed and could now excel in school. The skit ends with a standing ovation from the audience as the students expressed gratitude to Counterpart for their continued support, chanting “thank you” in their local language Wolof, “Jërejëf Counterpart International,” a sentiment that was continuously expressed throughout the event by community members.

Soon after the performance, the moderator, Mr. El Hadji Ndiaye, introduced the aforementioned stakeholders and provided the background of the project, addressing the graduation and sustainability focus. Following this introduction, Dr. Joan Parker, thanked members of the Senegalese government, USDA, U.S. Ambassador Mushingi, as well as the Saint-Louis community stakeholders, for working with Counterpart to promote inclusive and quality education in preschools and primary schools. She noted that since 2008, the McGovern-Dole projects have served over 18,000,000 meals to 45,000 children in 270 schools and have trained over 800 cooks on safe food preparation and storage, child health, and nutrition. She reinforced that:

“It is only through efficient collaboration and cooperation, that we will be able to achieve our shared objectives. Building a sustainable school feeding system brings us to the core of Counterpart’s vision and work around the globe and to the main objective of today’s workshop. We are all gathered here to lay the foundation, exchange ideas, and discuss ways to turn this vision into a reality. A reality that will provide thousands of children with daily meals with high nutrition values, and more importantly a fair chance to succeed not only in school but as active members of society. A lot has already been done for school feeding in Senegal, but many challenges remain. We are convinced that our approach of working together from conception through the project life cycle will yield results and allow us to achieve the objectives that brought us together.”

After Dr. Parker’s speech, Ambassador Mushingi warmly greeted the audience in French, Wolof, and English, making sure that all present were welcomed. Ambassador Mushingi continued by thanking Counterpart and the Senegalese government on behalf of the U.S. government and reiterated the graduation expectations of this launch. “Each U.S. government administration that has come understands the benefits of such programs like McGovern-Dole but also realizes that the U.S. government cannot be there indefinitely, which is no secret,” said Mushingi. He congratulated the Senegalese government for their efforts and willingness to improve the country’s educational system and referred to the children’s skit:

The children that we just saw, even if they did not say it, hope to one day be where we are. We all know that when nature will eventually take its course we will not stay in our positions forever, and inshallah it is these children that will replace us. For this to happen we will have to take care of them now. By improving the educational system, you are giving the children of the world the chance to dream of a better future.”

Following the Ambassador’s inspiring remarks, the representative from the Ministry of National Education’s School Canteen Division, Mr. El Hadji Seck, reminded the audience of the unfortunate reality that often happens too many times in communities after projects like these come to an end: a sense of dependency that halts all previous efforts. He reinforced the importance of an autonomous communal mindset and continued engagement to exceed expectations after the project ends.

To achieve sustainability, Katheryn Lane, Counterpart Sustainability and Graduation Consultant, advised that three components must be met: successful resource mobilization, management, and logistics by the Senegalese government.

As the event ended, a USDA representative shared lessons learned from other McGovern-Dole projects around the world. She noted that Kenya’s success story as the leader in school canteen sustainability was due in part by the government’s requirement of its schools to allocate at least 16.4% of its budget to school feeding programs. When asked by an audience member why Kenya was so successful, she stated, “at the end of the day, it all came down to politics.” The Kenyan national and local government’s strong collaboration and engagement facilitated the passing of this law, which allowed Kenya to achieve this success.

Upon hearing this, community members in the audience began expressing the need for a school canteen law to the representatives from the Ministry of National Education, prompting a much-needed dialogue that will hopefully continue throughout the life of the project.

The opening launch and graduation workshop in Saint-Louis provided a unique and much-appreciated opportunity for peer learning and sharing for the project’s stakeholders. Participants could not stop raving about the quality of the discussions. These included topics covering the gradual shift towards exclusive use of locally-produced commodities in school feeding to sharing lessons learned from various McGovern-Dole projects, demonstrating the power of collaboration for the common good.

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