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Food for Life

Feeding more than 1600 underprivileged  students every day!

As the bell rings, a cacophony of sounds fills the playground of the 54 year old Shree Bhadrakali Basic School in Khadka Gaun, Kathmandu. Children spill out of classrooms, talking and laughing, towards the small store room to collect their lunch plates and spoons. The aroma of fried rice laces the afternoon air and there’s visible excitement among more than 100 children waiting in a queue. “There’s rice with veggies on the menu!” a fifth grader announces to his friends. As the clapping subsides, the clanging of utensils takes over. This is an everyday affair in many such schools where mid-day meal is provided by Food For Life Nepal (FFLN). The programs of FFLN are based on the belief that one meal a day brings thousands of children to school.

Meanwhile, in the soot-filled kitchen in the backyard of ISKCON Nepal, are the five cooks who work for FFLN. The head cook stirs a steaming cauldron of vegetables for one last time with a huge wooden ladle. The other checks on the boiling rice and removes the colossal pot from the flame. As the meal gets ready, it is filled in huge steel containers and transported to different government schools. The routine is repeated every day from Sunday to Friday. Currently, they provide mid-day meal to 1600 children a day and are planning to serve 10,000 underprivileged children by the end of 2022.

“Our major objectives are to provide nutritious meals to the underprivileged children for better education, reduce the drop-out rate of children due to hunger, and encourage new enrollments of underprivileged children,” shares Brijesh Lacoul, Director, FFLN. The menu changes daily and has healthy options of khichadi, biryani, rice sabji and fried rice.

To serve more children on a daily basis, the organisation is raising funds for a bigger modular kitchen to be built on the premises of ISKCON Nepal. “We have been planning to set up a new kitchen through which we will be able to serve 10,000 children in a single preparation. With the new setup, we plan to cater to underprivileged children in the premises of Budhanilkantha Municipality which comes close to 5,700 plus children in 19 government schools. More children mean more responsibility. We are planning and preparing various reports and proposals for seeking funds from the government body, especially by approaching the current Mayor of Budhanilkantha Municipality, Uddhav Kharel, who has been supporting us. We are also approaching various business houses, banks, co-operatives and influential person to help this cause. We are very hopeful that we will get the necessary support,” Lacoul comments. Apara Thapa Bhattarai, Head of Operations, FFLN reveals that FFLN has been only supported in terms of land allocation by ISKCON Nepal.

While few of the schools manage to get utensils, there are many schools where paper cups have to be used. “We have allocated a separate budget of Rs 300,000- 400,000 just for the utensils which will be bought and distributed among several schools where the food is being delivered. The implementation will take place in the next four months,” informs Bhattarai.

All for inclusivity

FFLN started with a small survey conducted in Budhanilkantha Higher Secondary School to find out the situation of hunger and malnutrition among the children in government schools.

“We were surprised to observe a classroom where the children were sleeping and the teacher was engaged in reading a newspaper. Upon inquiry, we found that the children come to school hungry on empty stomachs and lacked concentration. Most of the children’s parents were labourers so they had a hard time fulfilling even the most basic needs of their children so the children almost never had a proper warm meal,” shares Bhattarai.

The sight of young children on empty stomachs kept bothering them. This made the core team start on a personal level by contributing to feed those 18 children of that particular school. Within three weeks, the number of children increased from 18 to 40. “We later found out that the children were inviting their missing classmates to attend school because they would get lunch at school,” he says.

This initiative grew in popularity and soon FFLN was officially established in 2015 and today serves 1600 children in 12 schools.

Before associating with any government school, FFLN conducts a free health camp at the very beginning. This also allows them to track progress with the meals. “There has been a major improvement in the health condition of almost every child that has been on this plan,” quips Bhattarai.

FFLN also has to take care of transportation of the meals to the various schools. “The cooked food is packed in stainless steel vessels to ensure hygiene. The delivery process is quite challenging mainly because of the difficult roads to the rural parts of Budhanilkantha. Although FFLN currently doesn’t own a delivery vehicle, they make do with a hired one. The empty containers are brought back to the kitchen for cleaning. This is the general process. However, there are schools with no motor access. Those areas can only be accessed by motorbike or by walking. In some cases, school representatives come to collect the cooked meal. It costs FFLN Rs 1500 every day just for transporting the meals,” says Mool.

The mid-day meal programme by the government

In order to combat food insecurity and low literacy rates, the World Food Programme supported the Government of Nepal in launching the National School Meals Programme. With the support of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the programme helped struggling families by providing haluwa, a nutritious Nepalese dish made of fortified cereal, to over 190,000 school children across the country each day. But there were reports that the budget allocated for the mid-day meal programme launched at government schools had been embezzled in different parts of the country. Eventually, it resulted in discontinuation of the scheme. Also, the meal served lacked nutritious portions. “It was a really good initiative from the government to support the education through mid-day meals where underprivileged students could get a proper meal. The impact was huge. But for some reason it has been cancelled which is quite sad,” expresses Lacoul.

With the motive of bringing back students to the classroom, supporting the community for sending their children to the school, Teach For Nepal also launched a mid-day meal programme that provided mid-day meal or khaja to school children. “We started mid-day meal in 2015 to attract children toschool. This project was planned for three months and was later extended for six months. We couldn’t run it for long due to lack of funds,” reveals a TFN staff.

Feedback

Food For Life has not only boosted daily attendance among students but also helped to keep them in class for the duration of the school day. The teachers share that student attendance had increased noticeably following the introduction of the mid-day meals because the meals provided were so much better than what the children were getting at home.

“The attendance has significantly increased and the main reason is that parents do not have to worry about their child’s lunch. It is a fact that one wholesome meal a day can bring thousands of children to school. Further, there were cases that children came to school hungry which resulted in a poor performance in class. But the “Mid-Day Meal’ program of Food for Life has helped these children to perform better in their class. And not just that, they are comparatively very active then they were before,” says Saraswati Nijal, Principal, Shree Bhadrakali Basic School.

FFLN got its inspiration from Food for Life Global (FFLG) and its projects from all around the world.

Sponsor a child

Initially, when FFLN started mid-day meal, expenditure per child per day was calculated at Rs.35. Now after feeding 1,600 children during school days, expenditure per child has been reduced by 14% to Rs.30 per day. “Donors are requested to sponsor possible number of children on monthly basis. One-day ‘Full Sponsor’ is also practiced and encouraged. Similarly, grains and vegetables are also generally collected from donors to run this project,” explains Bhattarai. She adds, “We work to put a smile on every child’s face.”