“It keeps our energy levels high during classes,” says Josephine, 16, talking about the food she receives at school.
Droughts, late rainfall and flooding have had devastating effects on agricultural production in Southern Africa.
In Zambia alone, 2.3 million people are experiencing food insecurity after only one normal harvest in the past 5 years.
Children’s education disrupted by food shortages
This protracted food crisis is impacting children and young people. Education is deprioritised by families with children being kept home from school because parents can’t afford to pay school fees or buy books or uniforms.
Existing gender inequalities result in girls dropping out of school before boys to look after younger siblings or look for work.
Godfrey Masumba is the headteacher at a primary school in Zambia’s Central Province. “Children do not come to school because they have no food,” explains Godfrey.
“And those that do come to school have very low energy levels. In the first week one pupil came to school with very low energy. The teacher asked the child to stand in front of the class so that he could introduce himself.
“The child couldn’t stand and the teacher thought maybe the child was sick. This child was brought to me and his body temperature was hot and he was sweating. When I asked the child what the problem was, he said had a headache. Then with further probing, this child explained he had actually had no food at all the previous day.”
The story Godfrey recounts isn’t unusual. Many families are surviving on little to no food. “Sometimes some of them have one meal per day, others no meals. There are families that have literally nothing here,” he says.
School feeding provides a boost
To encourage children to stay in school, Plan International has implemented a school feeding programme as part of its response to the food crisis in the country. Three times a week, volunteer parents of schoolchildren prepare a meal of porridge provided by the organisation.
Made from maize, it’s served at lunchtime to cater for the children who finish their lessons in the morning and those who start their lessons in the afternoon.
Godfrey says the results are immediately apparent. “We are seeing more and more children coming to school. Yesterday I received 6 children who had almost stopped school. Almost the whole of last term these children were not coming to school. But they returned yesterday, so it has increased the level of attendance.”
There’s also been a change in the pupils themselves. Diness, 13, explains: “My home is far away from here and the porridge gives me strength to walk back home.”
More needs to be done
The school feeding programme is one of several interventions by Plan International in Zambia to help those hardest hit by food scarcity, but more still needs to be done.
The lack of food disproportionately affects girls and young women. The food crisis increases the risk of displacement, school dropouts and violence, with many school-aged girls forced to drop out or miss class as they search for water, food and firewood for their families.
Plan International is calling on the international community to provide funding to meet acute needs in communities impacted by the crisis. All interventions need to ensure that the specific needs of and risks faced by adolescent girls are addressed.
As well as school feeding, Plan International is working with the government to distribute bags of maize to families in Zambia’s Central Province and is implementing measures to keep children, especially girls, safe.