One of our most unique representative visits a maternity clinic and a school in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Adora, a thirteen-year-old author, student and teacher could see the tangible impact of the school meals program in this country.
Students, all in neat uniforms, some girls with their hair in braids, stand and clap as I walk in. More file in behind me to take their seats, staring expectantly toward the front of the room, and the school officials begin to speak.
This might sound and look like an ordinary scene—a school assembly of some kind—but this is not my “normal” audience. In the US, we associate uniforms with private schooling—but these children aren’t students at a fancy private school, and they’re not from North America or Europe. This school has no gymnasium with shiny wood floors, no library with row upon row of books, no cafeteria where the students complain—“Why haven’t they changed up the menu yet?”—and no electricity, either. I’ve spoken to students in many different schools, but the Kanchirankudah Kaamadchi Vidyalayam School is one of the most unique.
So how did a thirteen-year-old author, student, and teacher from Redmond, Washington State end up speaking to elementary and middle school students in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka?
Through my work with the World Food Programme, I was able to visit “the field”—different places around Sri Lanka, where WFP aid workers distribute food to the hungry. When you look beyond Sri Lanka’s lush, verdant landscape of rice paddies and coconut trees, you can find widespread food insecurity.
The aftermath of the destructive Indian Ocean tsunami, coupled with years of recently ended civil war in Sri Lanka, contributed to hunger in places like Batticaloa.
But wait a second, you might say. Their school might not be fancy, but they look clean, they all have uniforms—they look fine to me! None of them are super stick-thin like the starving kids I see on TV. Are they really hungry?
As I learned over the course of the trip, this idea of one defined image of what hunger looks like is misleading. What do you think of when you think “hungry?” Maybe you think of what you say when you skipped lunch or how you feel right before dinner. Maybe you think of stick thin children with bones showing through skin on disproportionate bodies.
On our first day in Batticaloa, I was able to visit a maternity clinic to see fortified flour being handed out to mothers. Afterwards, we went to see mothers in their households. On our first day in Batticaloa, I was able to visit a maternity clinic to see fortified flour being handed out to mothers. Afterwards, we went to see mothers in their households. One mother had a son—the one pictured in the photograph. This is me standing next to him:
If you had to guess, how old would you say he is?
Like me, the boy in the photo is thirteen years old.
I’m thirteen and about average (maybe on the slightly short side) height for my age. However, he was much shorter than me, not to mention smaller overall, with thinner arms and legs. Looking at him, you might think him nine or ten—not thirteen. Yet you might not automatically think “He’s hungry” or “He’s food insecure.” Hunger shows itself in different ways, and this experience helped shape my understanding of that idea.
WFP workers, school officials, and parents also told me that, previous to the highly successful implementation of the school meals program, many children would faint in school from lack of food. For some children, breakfast might consist of some tea—or nothing at all. A meal the day before might depend on their mother or father getting work (not always guaranteed), the help of neighbors or religious communities, or a parent giving up their portion for their children—imperfect coping mechanisms. Anyone who’s ever complained about their stomach grumbling from skipping breakfast (myself included): imagine that plus very little to eat the day before.
Since the World Food Programme rolled out school feeding programs in schools around Sri Lanka, more children have been getting the food they need to concentrate on the education they deserve. You can see the tangible impact of the school meals by seeing what happens when schools go on vacation. Kids whose families have no or very little food at home may get sick easier and more often. A lack of nutrition translates to less energy for your body and its immune system, leading to the increased possibility of sickness. I see my peers getting super excited about summer break, but it’s easy to see why parents of students in the school meals program might dread school holidays arriving—would you be so excited about the holidays if it meant you had to figure out how to provide for your family, and you had significantly less to eat?
What images come to your mind when you think of “fighting hunger?” Maybe you think of ships carrying giant packages, long lines where people stand for hours on end to wait for food—images like the ones we saw from Haiti in 2010. Maybe you think of airdrops, where planes take off to drop bags of food into the specified area. Although these things are important to emergency responders after disasters, these images only make up part of the “puzzle.” Fighting hunger is not a one-time thing. Hunger has many reasons, not just natural disasters but also internal conflict, displacement, and poverty—issues that cannot be solved in one day alone.
As I saw illustrated in Sri Lanka, the World Food Programme’s role extends beyond emergency response; their framework of support ensures that no one in a family needs to go hungry. On my first day in Batticaloa, we went to visit a maternity clinic operated in partnership with the Ministry of Health. Here, young, often first-time mothers would come to receive food rations and learn good nutritional and health habits.
These maternity clinics ensure that babies get adequate nutrition so that they can grow and develop at the right pace. They hand out a fortified Corn Soya Blend (CSB for short), which the mothers can cook with much as they would cook with flour. I got to help hand out the rationed bag of CSB, plus oil and sugar.
WFP continues to provide support to family breadwinners with Food for Work and Food for Training programs, and when children go to school, they can receive School Meals. This support system ensures that children won’t have to drop out of school to support their family, that mothers have adequate nutrition for their children, and that parents are able to work and provide for the family.
I talked with students as well as parents, asking them what their dreams were, for themselves and for their families. One of the mothers I met from the maternity clinic responded that she hoped for her children to have opportunities and education beyond what she and her husband had had. Countless bright young students wished to go on to high school (poignant for someone coming from a country where peers say “I hate school” on a regular basis). These students, and their parents, truly understood the value of education.
The principal of the school reported that the school meals had helped students focus far more in school, and that fewer children were dropping out of school. By continuing their education, the children I talked with at KKV will have more opportunities than their parents did—and break the cycle of poverty. Food—particularly this continued support system—is at the heart of it all. The work that the World Food Programme does is not simply about keeping people alive—it’s to help them thrive. While visiting the KKV School in Batticaloa, I saw hygiene demonstrations from students involved in the School Brigades project, a UNICEF initiative to spread community awareness about hygiene by promoting hand washing and other healthy steps. One group sang a song (in impeccably memorized English). I can still remember certain lyrics: “Father, mother, sister, brother, always clean your fingernails!” is one of my favorites.
The food that the World Food Programme provides is the fuel that keeps these students going. As I’m a huge proponent of student voice, particularly when it comes to making positive change in their communities, seeing these hygiene demonstrations taught me what this looks like first hand.
Indeed, the recurrent theme of this blog post has not been what I taught the people I met during this trip. Aside from a short English lesson and a brief speech, I “taught” very little. Rather, seeing how hunger manifests itself in less obvious ways, understanding how WFP supports people at different stages of life, realizing the far-reaching impact that food can have—these are things which I have learned. I’m grateful for the opportunity to take this trip, as it has not only deepened my understanding on issues crucial to the work the World Food Programme does, but it has deepened my understanding—and appreciation—of things like school, food, and family that my peers and I have the privilege to enjoy every day. When I asked a mother from the maternity clinic what I could learn from her and her family, she blinked for a moment, surprised by the question, and gave a little laugh. Her words were translated. She’d said, “I don’t know if you can learn from us. We are simple people just living a peaceful life.” In that moment, I didn’t know what to reply. This post, detailing all the things I took away from the trip to Sri Lanka, is a delayed response.
Not long after I came back home to the US, floods in Sri Lanka—which affected Ampara and the region I visited, Batticaloa, particularly hard—provided new challenges to humanitarian workers in the region. But somewhere in a Pandora’s Box of conflict and displacement, natural disaster and poverty, there is a bag of CSB for a new mother, a school meal for a hungry child, a mother’s dream for her family. Food is more than a day’s nutrition—it is hope.