Food for Thought – The Dako Community School Feeding Programme nourishing young minds

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The drive seemed endless. The Nigeria Health Watch and TY Danjuma Foundation (TYDF) teams had driven for almost 40 minutes from Gwagwalada town, one of the area councils in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), but still had not reached their final destination, Dako, a small farming village with a population of about 3000 people. The mission was simple – to take the message of good hand washing practices to students of LEA Primary School, Dako.

Rural communities especially those that are in hard-to-reach areas often lack basic social services, are deprived and socially excluded. Dako community is no different. It is accessed through a long stretch of untarred road. The bad sections of the road have the potential to cut off the community when it rains. The vast expanse of land leading to the community is mostly farmland, with a few villages spotted along the way. Dako lacks several social amenities, including electricity, schools and healthcare centres. The only semblance of a primary health centre is a two-room facility located in Kaida-Sabo village, about 20 kilometres from Dako.

Dako is a hard-to-reach community in Gwagwalada area council that has benefited from numerous projects from TY Danjuma Foundation. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

At the LEA Primary School, Dako, the teams engaged with students, teachers and community members. The students were educated on the importance of hand washing, an important practice for the prevention of infectious diseases, while demonstrating the hand washing process and enabling the students to also practice the handwashing techniques they had just learnt. As the students observed, they also wore expectant looks on their faces as a group of women prepared meals for them in the school kitchen, located opposite the teacher’s quarters.

Education & Nutrition – Two Sides of the same coin
Salifu King Nathaniel, the CEO of Total Child Care Initiative (TCCI), a local NGO operating out of Abuja, said a lot had changed since the first two-room block was built in the community, as education was not a priority in the predominantly farming community.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), one in every 5 of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. In addition, Nigeria has about 10.5 million children, aged 5-14 years, that are not in school even though primary education is officially free and compulsory. TCCI tried to find a solution to this challenge in Dako by building two classroom blocks in 2008, where they started with only 10 students.  With support from both government and private partners, the school expanded over the next couple of years, both in physical structure and student population.

As the saying goes, the reward for hard work is more work. With more structures available to accommodate students, and the student population increasing to over 125, there was a need to sustain this, but most importantly, ensuring that the students were not hungry so that they are able to pay attention in school.

Research commissioned by Save the Children in the 90s tracked 12,000 children from the age 5 to 15 in four countries – India, Vietnam, Peru and Ethiopia – for over 10 years, to determine if malnutrition affected their learning capacity. Findings from the research which was made public in 2013 revealed that hunger keeps children out of school and limits their ability to concentrate once in school. Among other things, the study also showed that learning achievement among children from poor families was systemically lower than their peers; stunted children are 12.5% more likely to make a mistake writing a simple sentence and are 7% more likely to make mistakes while responding to simple math questions. At the age of 8 years old, children suffering from chronic malnutrition are 19% more likely to find it difficult to read simple sentences, the study also found.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Effective nutrition and education are two sides of the same coin that contribute to the proper development of children, who then become adults that will impact the nation’s development. Understanding these connections means there is an urgent need to address the problem of undernourished and malnourished children. Save the Children’s study also put this in perspective. It stated that there was an economic cost to having malnourished children, as it impacted on their future earning potential when they eventually join the workforce. The study put the economic cost at an estimated $125 billion globally.

Scaling for Impact
TCCI wanted to solve this problem but they needed resources. They applied for a grant from TYDF, one of Nigeria’s first indigenous grant-making organisations. The organisation secured a grant of N15 million to implement the foundation’s integrated school feeding programme. The LEA primary school, Dako, became the first school to benefit from the TYDF’s school feeding programme.

The project kicked off in 2015 after the foundation conducted an assessment that revealed poor retention and completion rates, including failure of students to return to school after a holiday break. The school feeding programme was initiated as a strategy to increase school attendance and retention of students and to create a culture of schooling in the Dako community. Overall, it aimed to ensure that the school was able to educate healthy and well-nourished students.

Maryamu Adade (far left) and other community women prepare meals for the pupils of LEA primary school, Dako. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

The initiative involved the community at every step of the process to ensure they took ownership of the scheme, building in sustainability from the onset. The TCCI team recruited 25 women as volunteers in the community and trained them to prepare nutritious and well-fortified meals using locally available food items. In the space used as the kitchen and store for the project, a carefully-designed time-table is displayed which guides the women on what to prepare on school days. Millet, beans, yam, bread, moi-moi, and rice were some of the meals listed. As volunteers, the women are not paid for their cooking services, it is their free will contribution to the initiative as their children are also students at the school, Mrs Maryamu Adade, the leader of the women mentioned that they are occasionally offered gifts and food items. Five groups of at least five women take turns to prepare the meals. The women also provide firewood for the cooking while other necessary equipment was provided by the TCCI team, including a grinding machine and pipe borne water, with funding support from TYDF. The water now serves the entire community.

A Multiplier Effect
As soon as word spread about the project, 94 new students registered in 2015 bringing the total student population to about 286 pupils with more girls enrolling compared to when the school only had two girls in 2008. Currently, there are over 150 female students in LEA Primary School, Dako. TCCI’s interventions have helped to increase the number of girls that now attend the school.

The school’s head teacher, Isa Ismaila, looks on as the cooks take the meals to the classroom in big basins, a fulfilled look on his face. Even though he was yet to be transferred at the inception of the project in 2015, he is happy about their achievements. “They are well nourished and stay in school beyond the break period. They eat locally made and nutritious food and this is keeping them very healthy,” he said. As at 2017, the school feeding project had fed about 305 students.

Pupils of LEA Primary School, Dako, fill up their drinking water bottles while waiting for their meals. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

These benefits inspired the community to take ownership and contribute towards the sustainability of the project. Abdullahi Wakili is the brother of the community chief and serves as the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) chairman of the school. He said the members of the community gave the school a portion of land to farm vegetables and cash crops and occasionally donate large tubers of yam to help with the students’ feeding.

The school’s head boy and girl, Abdul and Kadoor, said they were excited about being able to eat different foods in school and look forward to becoming teachers in the future.

Sustaining the Energy
The project has its fair share of challenges. Enthusiasm has reduced over the years and Adade said the women who were trained as volunteers don’t show up as they are meant to. She says the women who didn’t show up wanted more incentives, including payment for their time. It was also difficult to get these women to come during the farming season as they would rather spend the time working in their farms. She makes out extra time to mobilise other women to join her in cooking.

In spite of these challenges, the TCCI team continues to work hard to deliver this important project. Salifu said the school has been adopted by the Federal Government’s National Homegrown School Feeding Programme to leverage on the structures they already have in place. It is important to sustain community-led initiatives such as these and to scale them up for maximum impact, as shown by Pan-African Community Initiative on Education and Health (PACIEH) in two southeastern states.

The amount of investment we dedicate to the development of children today will affect the country tomorrow. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Today is Children’s Day, a day set aside to celebrate Nigeria’s children, who make up 44% of the entire population. The amount of investment we dedicate to their development today will affect the country tomorrow, so it’s important to sustain efforts such as the school feeding programme to ensure that the children attain their full potential as adults. The National Youth Policy launched in May 2019 aims to enhance youth development and participation in the context of sustainable development. As a policy document, it should be implemented to deliver on the promises, especially as it recognises that young people face a double burden when it comes to nutrition.

It is when this happens that Nigeria can benefit from the energy and potential of its youth population. It is only then that Nigeria can reap the demographic dividends from every community – including Dako.

Do you know of any school feeding programme in Nigeria? Are you aware of the successes or challenges they may be facing? We will like to hear from you! Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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