By Bernard Ankiambom and Jennifer Brookland

More than 2,500 people turned out to celebrate the opening of Counterpart International’s latest food and literacy program in Cameroon’s North region, including some of the dancing, singing and flag-waving students who will benefit from the project.

The program, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, seeks to improve food security and reduce hunger, as well as increase literacy and primary education enrollment in four regions of Cameroon. It will ultimately reach nearly 75,000 children each day.

Students will receive breakfast and hot lunches each day, prepared using USDA-donated commodities and supplemented with fresh produce from school gardens that parents and teachers manage.

Girls, who are at greater risk of dropping out early to perform household chores or get married, will get additional take-home rations.

“I encourage you to see the Food for Education program as much more than a school feeding program,” U.S. Ambassador Robert Jackson said to parents at the event. “Consider it as an excellent opportunity to renew and strengthen your commitment to your children’s education. There is no more reliable path to poverty reduction and social improvement.”

Through the project, libraries, simple kitchens and latrines will be constructed at the 150 participating schools, which were chosen through a consultative process with community members and local authorities.

Ambassador Jackson and Fidèle Tegni, Secretary-General at the North Governor’s office, presided over the March 14 launch, which took place at the Sanguere Paul primary school about nine miles from the regional capital of Garoua.

The officials planted symbolic fruit trees on the school’s grounds and laid the corner stone for a planned classroom. They pledged support for the program and called on beneficiary communities to collaborate and take ownership of the initiative.

United Nations and NGO representatives joined military generals, local officials, parent-teacher association presidents and teachers from various schools at the event.

“For once we have seen all authorities—political, administrative, traditional, and religious—travel from all over to grace this community occasion,” says PTA president Dolekadji Levihad—an organizational feat he is “exceedingly proud” of.

The visitors were treated to a guided tour of the school’s new store, library and kitchen, and looked on as children received their first hot lunch.

They also visited the just-created school garden – which is a key element to the program’s sustainability since it will replace the USDA provisions.

“If I had not passed around this community in December 2012, I would not have believed that this impressive school garden has been realized in just two months,” says General Tumenta Martin, General of the Third Military Region of the Cameroonian Army. “I am happy with the work you people have done in so short a time and this makes me believe that you will have a successful project implementation.”

Students laced the presentation with poems on the importance of girls’ education, sketches and other animations.

It was they who made an impression on Counterpart’s Vice President of Programs, Tim Ogborn.

“The students who greeted us at the opening event were overjoyed to have the chance to stay in school and continue their education, and their enthusiasm was pervasive” he says. “Giving a child a real lunch gives her more than a meal, but an opportunity to succeed in a way that might not have been possible before.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, community members and villagers returned to the lawan, or traditional ruler’s compound for refreshments, and to share their excitement about the new program they hope will bring opportunity to their children.

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