In Africa, 23 million children go to school hungry. This severely affects their ability to concentrate in class, in turn affecting their school performance. Many children take to the streets and beg for food in the morning, instead of going to school to learn.
In Kenya, where the Food for Education programme operates, 26% of children are stunted due to chronic undernutrition and 40% suffer from malnutrition. In a country where 46% of the population lives in poverty and 43% of the population are aged 15 years and under, many children are born into and grow up in poverty.
Allow me to tell you about a typical day in the eyes of Lucy, a child who receives essential nourishment from the Food for Education programme…
After waking up at 4:30am, splashing cold water on her face and back, and her mother screaming for her not be late, “Don’t forget your book this time”, Lucy takes a few sips of water, puts on her school uniform, straps her bag to her back and starts the long journey to school. Along the dusty road, she makes her way past the neighbour’s kiosk, over the new tarmac road, through the market, and 10 kilometres later, she walks through the school gate, just in time for the first class of the day at 7am.
A long wait for food
When the bell rings at 11am for the second break, Lucy has had three excruciating lessons trying to ignore her gnawing hunger. She stares out of the window at the children leaving their classes to the bathrooms, to get some water, to go and play. She sits at the desk she shares with four other children and counts the minutes until lunch – the only meal she’ll get that day. One, two, three, four… how many minutes till 12:40pm?
The lunchtime rush
Lucy is one of the hundreds of four to 14-year-old children that stand at Food for Education’s door, colourful lunch boxes in hand, waiting for their meal. The process of serving food can take over an hour and must happen as quickly as possible to ensure that everyone is served. There’s a lot of chatter and sometimes anxiety; it’s 12:40pm and many of the children waiting in line haven’t eaten since 6am or earlier. Many, like Lucy, walk for up to 10 kilometres to get to school before the 8am assembly, either on an empty stomach or after a simple breakfast of tea with a slice of bread, a local pastry or a slice of the local staple ‘ugali’.
I stand at the side watching, as every plate of food is served. Portion sizes must be accurate to ensure that all of the 300 students gets an adequate lunch. Everyone is hungry but everyone must wait their turn. In any setting, children find it hard to wait their turn, but here, it’s even harder – imagine having not eaten for six hours or more. Completely famished, the children have to sit in a class, to understand difficult mathematics and learn about the solar system, the complexity of science, the national history, the country’s important liberating figures, the presidents and their terms, and the geography of the world. I find it hard to write an email when I’m hungry.
Food to fuel her future
When the bell rings, the children burst out of their classes, running. I panic a little when I hear the 600 footsteps, and see many others standing at the side hoping they can get leftovers. I see Lucy in line, clutching onto her lunch box, waiting patiently to be served.
When she grows up, Lucy wants to become an engineer; a bold dream for any girl but more so for her. She lives with her mum and three sisters in a one-room shanty. “We don’t cook at home”, Lucy will say. Her mother is unemployed and struggles to feed her and her siblings, so most days, the lunch Lucy has at school is the only meal she has in a day. No breakfast or dinner. To be an engineer, Lucy needs to stay in school and learn. Lucy needs to eat.
Making dreams a reality
In my mind, I skip forward to 2026 and picture Lucy sitting in her engineering class in university. She’s close to achieving her dream of getting a good job that will help her support her family. Alongside her are hundreds of thousands of students who wouldn’t have stayed in school to learn if they didn’t have that promise of one meal a day.
I invest in Food for Education because I believe in the future of my country and continent. I believe that all children should have access to adequate and nutritious food that not only nourishes them, but directly helps them achieve good results in school. And I believe that our actions now, can determine how the next 10 years will be. I believe in Lucy.