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Published May 23, 2011, 10:36 AM

Common goals, different countries

NAIROBI, Kenya — Gene White, a former director of child nutrition for California, and Namanga Ngongi, president of the agriculture development effort in Nairobi, Kenya, an undertaking started by the Seattle -based Gates Foundation, come from different worlds, but they have a dream in common: that every child in Africa will be offered a school lunch and that as much of the food as possible will be produced by local farmers.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

NAIROBI, Kenya — Gene White, a former director of child nutrition for California, and Namanga Ngongi, president of the agriculture development effort in Nairobi, Kenya, an undertaking started by the Seattle

-based Gates Foundation, come from different worlds, but they have a dream in common: that every child in Africa will be offered a school lunch and that as much of the food as possible will be produced by local farmers.

African school lunch programs already have proven that school meals not only feed hungry children, but encourage children, especially girls, to stay in school longer. But these programs reach only a small percentage of Africa’s school children. Some are sponsored by African governments, but many are dependent on the U.S. government’s McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, the U.N. World Food Program and other donors.

However, at a May 6 Global Child Nutrition Forum in Nairobi, White and Ngongi, with the help of a London-based group, Partnership for Child Development, convinced education, health and agriculture officials from 22 African countries and organizations to sign an accord calling on African governments to establish or expand “home-grown” school feeding programs through legislation and national policies.

“Home-grown school feeding programs are sustainable methods of attracting all children, especially girls, to school, while increasing local agricultural production and stimulating the local economy,” the agreement says.

Addressing malnutrition, markets

If the African governments follow the accord, they will address the same two issues that Congress addressed in 1946 when it established the U.S. school lunch program: malnutrition and the need for stable markets for agricultural products. Congress got interested in school lunch when U.S. military officials said they had to reject thousands of young men for service in World War II because they were not strong enough to serve in the military because of a lack of nutrition growing up.

Congress also was worried that postwar agricultural surpluses, would cause farm prices to plummet. The lawmakers put the two issues together and created what today is known as the Richard B. Russell School Lunch Act program, with the goals of feeding children and helping farmers written into the legislation.

Today, millions of African children are malnourished. The African countries do not face agricultural surpluses, and, in fact, must import food. They need to establish guaranteed markets to encourage farmers to invest and grow more.

While both White and Ngongi know that reaching a goal of universal school lunch in Africa will not be easy and may take years, they are appealing to current donors to continue or expand their programs and to the African governments to see the double value in establishing their own school lunch programs.

White, a registered dietician whose career has ranged from managing school lunch programs in California to being president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal managers across the United States, began helping school officials in foreign countries set up school lunch programs in the 1970s. In 2006, she founded the Global Child Nutrition Foundation as the international arm of the School Nutrition Association to handle the rising number of requests for information about running lunch programs — and to encourage more countries to establish them.

Establishing programs

In an interview, White, who now lives on Whidbey Island in the state of Washington, noted that it has taken more than 100 years for the U.S. school programs to get to their current level with lunch in almost every American public school, breakfast in many schools and snacks, summer feeding programs for poor children and directives in the 2010 child nutrition bill to improve the nutritional quality of the food.

School feeding started in the United States around 1900, she said, when parents and teachers in Chicago, Boston and New York noticed that immigrant children were coming to school hungry and started bringing food. Attendance rates went up in schools that provided food, and school boards were persuaded to start school lunch programs. The Agriculture Department distributed surplus commodities to schools in the 1930s during the Depression, but it took the war experience to establish the national school lunch program.

The School Nutrition Association was formed in 1946, the same year the school lunch program was established, and “has become the guardian and the shepherd” of school feeding, White said.

Ngongi, a native of Cameroon in western Africa, was deputy director of the World Food Program when Catherine Bertini, an American, was director. As president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, he has shifted from the job of distributing food, which is WFP’s mission, to helping African farmers increase their productivity. AGRA is a Nairobi-based institution that the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation set up in 2006 to help African farmers with tiny farms — some an acre or less — improve their productivity.

While most of AGRA’s work focuses on getting improved seeds and fertilizer to farmers who grow crops on only an acre or two, the organization also recognizes that those farmers needed stable markets for their crops and has encouraged the World Food Program, which operates school feeding programs, to buy from small farmers.

“School feeding means food and that means agriculture,” Ngongi told the conference. He said that AGRA is helping establish systems of storage and warehouse receipts to make it easier for small farmers to sell to the schools. Creating a school food market that will encourage African farmers to grow more can help entire African families, Ngongi said, because at least 50 percent of Africa’s small farmers do not raise enough food to feed themselves, and 40 percent of their children are malnourished, he added.

Staying in school

Several speakers noted that while school feeding programs convince poor parents to send their daughters to school to get a meal, the girls’ attendance in school has other positive consequences.

“Schools protect girls from being married off,” Ngongi said.

“If you keep girls in school, they don’t (get) pregnant,” added Manuel Aranda da Silva, a Mozambican who works for WFP.

It’s important to discourage early pregnancies, other speakers noted, because in those pregnancies, the mother and fetus fight for nutrition, since the mother’s body still is growing.

A series of speakers at the conference stressed the value of school feeding programs for Africa’s children and the intricacies of developing good programs.

Ronald Kleinman, a Harvard Medical School pediatrics professor, noted that while health advocates have focused on providing proper nutrition from the womb to age 2, good nutrition can affect a child’s development throughout the school years.

“As long as the ends of bones remain open, one can affect the height of the child, and bones don’t stop growing until a child reaches puberty between 10 and 16,” he said. “Brains grow until 22.”

While malnutrition is visible, Kleinman said, “hunger is largely an invisible problem but has mental and physical consequences.” If all the children in a village are stunted, that short height becomes the norm,” he said. “School cafeterias are the frontline” of approaching this problem, he added.

Importance of lunch

Don Bundy, the World Bank’s lead specialist on school health, noted that his group began supporting school feeding only after the 2008 spike in world food prices led it to look at new ways to get food to people.

“School feeding is good for education, but it is also a safety net,” Bundy said.

Ruth Oniang’o, a Kenyan who is an adjunct professor of nutrition at Tufts University, said the content of school meals is important because urban African mothers, like American mothers, are working hard and may be more likely to give their children money to buy snacks than to prepare nutritious food.

“Modern foods bring modern diseases,” she noted.

“School meals reach a captive audience,” added Valeria Menz of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

A Ghanian official said his government is trying to reach as many children as possible with food, while a Kenyan official said his government is trying to get both education and food to nomadic children through mobile schools.

Arlene Mitchell of the Gates Foundation noted that the foundation has sponsored a program called “Purchase for Progress” to help schools buy food from local farmers. But, she said, “development and humanitarian groups have been slow to turn (school feeding) over to the communities.”

The Gates Foundation, Mitchell said, will not provide school food aid to countries that are rich from oil revenue, and suggested that the African countries raise taxes on luxury items, cigarettes, gambling and alcohol and use that stream of revenue for school feeding programs.