Scenes inside of the Sinthiou Garba Preschool in the village of Sinthiou Garba in northeast Senegal. Through the USDA-funded McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program, Counterpart International has been providing the school with food for school lunches since 2007.

© David Snyder/ Counterpart International.

By Jennifer O’Riordan

The children attending the Agnan Lidoube elementary school in northeast Senegal were considered the more fortunate ones. Although many of the students went to school hungry, at least they had an opportunity to attend school.

Senegal’s province of Matam, which borders with Mauritania, is neither easy to get to nor easy to live in. Since most families survived by herding goats, cows and other animals, education was a lower priority.

More than 77 percent of Senegal’s labor force works in agriculture and this can certainly be seen in Matam. Farming there is incredibly difficult. Its arid terrain and erratic climate often force local farmers to move from place to place in search of grazing pastures for their livestock.

Malnutrition is a constant challenge in Matam.

“Matam is one of the biggest areas of Senegal and we have the highest acute malnutrition rates in the country,” says Medoune Diop, Counterpart’s Deputy Country Director in Senegal.

This tendency to move around, along with poverty and high malnutrition, has had a very negative impact on school enrollment.

That has changed. Now the children at Agnan Lidoube elementary school are no longer hungry – and many more have joined them – thanks to a special program funded by the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) and implemented by Counterpart that has changed the face of education for tens of thousands of kids in the region.

Through the program, each child at the Agnan Lidoube elementary school receives a hot lunch prepared fresh each day. Eager for lunch, the children first wash their hands. Then, as is tradition in Senegal, they form into groups of about six kids, each one with their own spoon and share lunch from a large metal serving bowl.

Since 2006, more than 450 teachers and school officials and 850 Parent Teacher Associations have received training on nutrition, food safety and how to manage commodities for a school feeding program.

As part of the USDA-funded program, Counterpart has distributed food commodities, take-home rations for pregnant or lactating mothers, school supplies and constructed latrines.

Today, the school feeding program in Matam serves hot lunches to more than 22,000 children in 105 schools. Positive results are not only being seen in children’s health, but also their academic performance.

The results are impressive.

“We had 70 students up until 2008,” says a teacher at one of the schools. “Now, in 2011, we have more than 200 students. Every year we get new students and yet every year we maintain our record of 100 percent pass rate at exams.”

Community participation: Key to longevity

Trenchard says one of the most important parts of the program is that it coordinates administrators, parents and community leaders to take ownership of the program – from preparing the meals to deciding on a long-term strategy to keep it alive.

For example, since the food assistance is temporary, parent associations have created school gardens to replace the USDA supplies. They are educated in contemporary agricultural practices and trained to prepare the hot nutritious lunches for their children.

Key to the success of the program in Matam is partnership and involving the community from the very beginning. Within the first 18 months of the program, there was a 25 percent increase in enrollment at participating schools.

“That’s when we knew that we were doing something right,” says Counterpart’s Josephine Trenchard. “They’re involved in a program every step of the way from the designing to implementation. We make sure that they’re on board and that they own the programs.”

Senegal’s Education Ministry has also taken a considerable interest in Counterpart’s school feeding program.

“We’ve been able to work with the Minister of Education to sensitize them on the importance of school feeding and because of that there’s been a new department of school feeding opened up – with a budget,” says Josephine Trenchard, Counterpart’s Country Director in Senegal.

Meanwhile, at the Agnan Lidoube elementary school more improvements are on the way. Money donated by the Senegalese diaspora living in Europe is being used to build more classrooms.

The changes have had a remarkable impact on the students. During a visit by a delegation to the school, the children were eagerly raising their hands to answer a teacher’s questions – and, to the pleasure of the village chief who was watching, the kids had the right answers.