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Feeding Bellies, Nurturing Minds

By Ashley Grzybowski

Lunch is served to students at the Biihe
Primary School in Ghana’s Upper West. For
many of the students, this will be the only
meal they eat in a day. Though food is widely
available to much of Ghana, five per cent of
the population still remains food insecure.
Both food insecurity and poverty are
disproportionate throughout the country; the
Upper West is one of the poorest regions.

Under the hot midday sun, hundreds of children of all ages are filtering slowly into a bare classroom. Some are enrolled in the school; others flock from the surrounding community. Two female cooks lead the way, clad in bright, colourful smocks and carrying large basins on their heads. Inside Biihe Primary School in Ghana’s Upper West region, children are scattered everywhere: a cacophony fills the room, a combination of hungry children crying, teachers shouting and cutlery clanking against tin bowls. The cooks serve three-ladle-full portions of ground-up maize, micronutrient powder and oil mix to a line-up of children waiting to be fed as the others sit on the floor or benches to finish their meals.
Although every child receives an equal serving, many attempt to get a second helping. Despite the dwindling
quantities of food, the row of hungry children seems endless, the children’s bony, meatless limbs, extended bellies and reddened hair are telltale signs of malnutrition. Many children in this rural community and other parts of the Upper West come from families that make up a large majority of the country’s population who are extremely poor and food insecure. For many children at Biihe, this lunch will be the only meal eaten that day. In fact, the only reason keeping many of these children in school is this single, daily meal.
Food is widely available in Ghana, but is not accessible to all. Five per cent of the population, or 1.2 million people, are food insecure, meaning they have limited access to sufficient and nutritious food. This coincides with the 45 per cent of Ghanaians living in poverty (on the equivalent of $1.25 CAD a day or less). While this national average is lower than main disproportionate among the country’s regions. During Ghana’s colonial rule and even post-independence, the three northern regions — Upper West, Upper East and Northern Region — have been bypassed by major economic growth and development initiatives.
Expansion has been a slow process and a variety of other factors such as natural disasters, refugee resettlement and the unstable global economy have affected these areas considerably in recent years. As a result, many people, especially women and children, whose families’ livelihoods depend on low-yielding and labour-intensive agricultural practices, are deprived of their basic needs and left vulnerable
to conditions of poverty, hunger, malnutrition and inequality.

The Upper West is one of the poorest regions of Ghana: poverty affects over 95 per cent of the rural districts’ population, and over 89 per cent in the region’s few urban areas. As a whole, the population boasts the country’s highest rate of food insecurity, a number that continues to grow beyond its current 34 per cent.
When combined, conditions of poverty and food insecurity create a trap that is difficult to escape. Consequently, many families are unable to provide their children with daily meals, let alone the healthcare and education critical to sustaining their welfare, food security, and guaranteeing their futures. Children who must help their families with household or farm labour often miss school for lengthy periods of time or do not attend school at all. Even though Ghanaians have access to free education up to grade eight, over a million children are still kept out of school.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is a nongovernmental organization assisting the Government of Ghana by actively tackling malnutrition and poverty in the three northern regions. The organization donates approximately 23,407 metric tons of food (estimated at a value of $19.6 million US dollars) to Ghana. In
a joint effort with UNICEF and the Canadian International Development Agency, WFP provides food-based assistance for over 102,000 primary school children and 10,000 junior schoolgirls in over 304 schools. These schools are located in communities where food insecurity is highest and primary school enrolment and gender parity are at their lowest. The program presents a threefold objective: improving school
enrolment, attendance and retention; reducing short-term hunger and malnutrition; and boosting domestic food production by using locally produced food for school feeding (also providing a ready market for local small-scale farmers). The overarching goal for the school feeding program is to alleviate the effects of poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the northern regions in the long term.

The joint collaboration and active participation of the programs’ actors including development partners,
school staff, parents and local government officials have been essential in its effectiveness. Participants
share responsibilities in implementing and managing the program, donating their time and contributing extra resources to cover supplementary costs and make up for losses. With this collaborative approach, WFP’s donations are not merely a handout but an attempt for communities to take ownership of the program and pilot their own development, eventually eliminating the need for WFP and assistance in general.
In another rural community in the Upper West, I met Adams Awudu, headmaster of Sankana Primary School, to discuss the school’s WFP-assisted feeding program. Since its beginning in March 2009 at Sankana Primary, the program’s successes are obvious: enrolment has increased significantly, from 483 students last year to 586 this year, the drop-out rates have fallen, student transfers have increased and the children’s academic performances have improved.

“The children are very happy to have the food. When they are at home, sometimes they have nothing to eat. We provide them with food,” says Awudu, adding that many students transfer to Sankana because of the initiative. “The feeding program is helping a lot. When (the children) are eating,they open up their books and they are learning. It encourages them to come to and stay in school.”

Despite these achievements, challenges for the program and the school still remain. Sankana Primary is one of many other schools still lacking basic facilities such as kitchens, dining halls and even toilets, absences that hinder the schools’ ability to meet the needs of the increasing enrolment. Insufficient funds as well as a lack of resources, infrastructure and means of transport — most communities are only accessible by long stretches of uneven dirt road — make seemingly simple tasks like delivering food to the schools very difficult.
The Government of Ghana recognizes the obstacles that prevent many children from receiving quality
education and nutritious food. It has committed itself to the United Nations’ Millennium Development
Goals and is striving to halve the number of people living in poverty. Ghanaian authorities also plan on achieving 100 garten to grade eight — by 2015. The National Government has made gradual improvements in realizing these targets. To help reduce poverty restraints while improving the quality of education, the National Government introduced a capitation grant that covers school tuition fees and levies, facility construction and repairs, free school uniforms and exercise books. Since 2005, it has also been providing nutritious lunches for children in selected schools nationwide through the Ghana School Feeding Programme (GFSP), an initiative similar to the WFP’s. Although GSFP also works towards poverty
reduction and food security, it has been criticized as being mismanaged and failing to reach the needy populations in Ghana’s poorest communities.

Vera Boohene, national information and public relations officer for the WFP, asserts that food security
has not been the main priority of the National Government in selecting schools to benefit from its feeding program.
“Food insecurity should be at the top of the agenda because you just don’t get the maximum of a child who is hungry. They can’t learn and they are unproductive.”
The WFP and the GSFP work collaboratively in some schools in the Upper West. In these schools, the WFP provides food for three school days while the government has committed to the remaining two in a bid to eventually take over for the WFP. But in many of the schools, this commitment is lacking. “We expected the government to expand their coverage and come and partner with us in more schools. That hasn’t happened yet,” Boohene says. “We are trying to pitch in so that they come and join us in the most deprived regions and schools. Because we know the value of the program, we don’t want it to be affected by any political concerns.”

In early August, I met with Seidu Paakuna Adamu, the recently appointed national coordinator of the GFSP.
Schools had just closed for the summer break and Adamu was finishing his evaluation tour of the region’s feeding schools. Only four months into his executive position, Adamu is fully aware of the program’s successes, goals and more importantly, its shortcomings. “Since it first started in 2005, the program has expanded from five pilot schools to 1,900, reaching over 657,000 school children,” says Adamu, adding that despite these successes, some of the targeting had not been evaluated correctly. He explained that some
schools — particularly middle-class areas in urban centres — were not as “deserving” of the program when compared to schools in deprived areas. Although he acknowledges the necessity of putting more feeding schools in the three northern rural regions, he mentions the difficulties of withdrawing the feeding program from recipient schools. “We need to concentrate on the poorest communities. We are trying to retarget the program and make sure that it remains more even and focused,” says Adamu. “Expansion is needed but present recipients still need support too. (Present) communities are interested and concerned about any changes.” With the second phase of the GSFP scheduled for September 2010, a national assessment exercise
was underway.

“We have started to collect figures. Once we get our figures right and the spread (of schools) in the rural regions, then we can look at poverty areas and fill in the gaps,” Adamu says. “We are raising this issue with the Ministry of Local Government to discuss it and retarget it to make sure that the objectives of addressing poverty are strictly adhered to.”

Despite the hardships faced by the Upper West’s rural communities, their determination and resiliency are commendable. Challenged with a lack of sufficient government support, they are making the best of the meager resources available. The rural communities’ eagerness for improvement and engagement in assistance programs like the WFP’s initiatives are promising for the potential of further growth and progress in the Upper West. Adamu is adamant that more attention and support for people and the northern regions are greatly needed. “We hope that the government will be able to provide one hot meal to each school child in the country. We haven’t gotten there yet,” he says. “As of now, what we are trying to do is strengthen the management of the program (by) getting the right staff to handle it. Then we can look for the funding to expand the project as we go along. We have a lot of children who need to get on board.”

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