Sierra Leone: How school feeding empowers parents to grow and sell vegetables
The women of Tawuya farmers group, in the Kambia district of northern Sierra Leone, like to sing as they work. Harvesting sweet potato leaves at sunset one Tuesday, their chorus praises the merits of working with the World Food Programme. WFP recently introduced its home-grown school feeding model here, inviting farmers groups to grow crops for children’s lunchtimes.
Farmers supply the very school their children attend and where they work as volunteer cooks.
“WFP created a means for us women to earn money regularly,” says group member Adama, who has seven children. “It is hard to find money in Tawuya. We come three times a week to pick potato leaves or eggplants, or peppers and cucumber. What the schools order is what we supply, then we get paid on Fridays.”
This year, WFP trained 70 women here to prepare tastier, healthier, safer meals by, for example, applying the right amount of oil and salt while not over-cooking the leaves.
I watch as the women quickly fill two buckets with mounds of leaves that are chopped and cooked with a touch of palm oil, peanut paste, dried fish, salt, onions, and fresh pepper. The dish is served with cereal and legumes daily. Providing this daily meal creates an incentive for parents to send their children to school in one of the country’s most food-insecure areas.
Money, of course, is hard to find anywhere in Sierra Leone, one of the world’s least developed countries, with over 65 percent of the population living below the poverty line (US$1.25 per day).
In June, the country stood out in the region for its highest rise in food prices, at 62 percent, and fastest decline in local currency value, over the past five years. Such developments, exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis, have eroded the purchasing power of consumers, leading to concerns over people’s access to food and quality of life.
To stimulate local agriculture and improve children’s nutrition through school feeding, the Government of Sierra Leone launched a school feeding policy last year emphasizing the homegrown model. WFP supported the development of this policy, then began a pilot, to guide and advise the Government what home-grown school feeding could look like.
WFP supports farmer groups to grow more diversified food while connecting them to a reliable market: schools. WFP’s approach encourages the community to fully participate in and own the programme so it can be sustained.
WFP supplies schools with dedicated cash for them to purchase vegetables from the farmers so to ensure vegetables appear on the children’s plates. The Tawuya women are now able to meet more of their needs and are able to keep more food in the house, Adama says.
In addition to providing the group with high-yield seeds, fertilizers, and farm tools, participants have learned how to make compost to nourish land organically. The soils of Sierra Leone are not naturally fertile enough to sustain prolonged crop production and productivity including rice, a staple which the farmers groups also supply to the schools.
“We have sweet potatoes, eggplant, okra, maize and rice in the nursery over there,” says Adama. “[And] we have a large cassava garden a distance away from where we can harvest more leaves.”
Fellow group member N’yayh Sankoh says, “The school works well for us mothers and we are happy.”
The women sing again as they hurry home before it gets dark, pacing through thickets, palm forest and patches of marsh. They only harvest at dusk. They keep their harvest on the roof overnight so that it is fresh when they deliver it to the District Committee school early in the morning.
Come Friday, pay isn’t much once distributed among the group’s 24 members – typically, each one earns less than the equivalent of US$8. However, the women say, it has changed their lives.
WFP is implementing the home-grown programme in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Government in 17 out of nearly 1,000 schools it supports with school feeding. It is a pilot intended to inform the Government, whose new school feeding policy emphasizes a transition to the home-grown model. .