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Future of school meals program in parents’ hands

One of the main goals of the UN WFP’s Optimizing School Meals Programme is to engage parents and local community members in the school feeding process.

Success can be achieved only by combining the efforts and capabilities of all those involved in providing children with hot meals at schools. It means that children will regularly receive high-quality nutrition to benefit their health.

With this objective in mind, the Insan Leilek Foundation, a local partner of WFP in Kyrgyzstan, held seminars for parents at the end of last year to raise awareness about the importance of school meals. The materials for the lectures were developed by the SIFI team.

From September to December 2022, 56 such seminars were held in most Kyrgyz regions: Osh, Jalal-Abad, Chui, Naryn, and Issyk-Kul. Unfortunately, due to hostilities in the Batken region, the events planned there did not take place and were postponed to a later date. In total, about 1,200 parents of primary school children participated in the seminars.
Do parents know all about school feeding?

Before each seminar, parents were asked 11 questions about school meals. This pre-test revealed that most parents needed more understanding of the topic, as only some knew the correct answers to half of the questions.

During the seminars, WFP and Insan Leilek Foundation representatives spoke about the organization of school meals, emphasizing how important it is for children to have a diverse and balanced diet. They explained the impact of a healthy diet on the physical and mental development of the child, perseverance, and academic progress at school. Numerous studies prove a close relationship between good nutrition and the pace of learning.

Parents were also introduced to the fundamentals of well-balanced nutrition based on the healthy plate principle developed on the recommendations of Kyrgyz experts. This principle helps compose a diet so the child receives the maximum useful substances from various healthy products during the day.

Picture: Average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements;
1 day of school feeding for one child aged 7-10
School feeding financing – what to know and how to act

For a full understanding of the concept, parents were offered to put the theory into practice. Thus, one of the tasks of the practical part of the seminar was to analyze the school menu for compliance with the principles of a healthy diet and a limited budget for the purchase of products for cooking school meals.

The assignment dealt directly with the issue of financing school meals. Currently, schools receive 7-10 soms per child daily from the republican budget. This is not enough to provide children with well-balanced hot meals. Considering this fact, the Kyrgyz legislation allows increasing funding with the help of voluntary contributions from parents.

It is up to parents whether to participate in this process. In any case, their children will be fed with the funds allocated by the government. However, parents have the opportunity to make school meals better.
When selecting schools for seminars, the Insan Leilek Foundation undertook to motivate parents who avoid participating in the financing of school meals, make them believe in the program, and start contributing to the school feeding process. That is why the foundation has chosen schools with the least involvement of parents.

Which are the results?

The seminars produced good results: in 34 out of 56 schools, parents began making contributions. Moreover, the majority is ready to invest in their child’s nutrition from 100 to 200 soms monthly, and about a third agree to increase this amount to 300 soms.

The testing conducted among parents at the end of one-day seminars showed a sharp increase in their knowledge of healthy nutrition. Seminar participants provided correct answers to almost all test questions: on average, 10 out of 11.

Notably, in addition to helping with school meals funding, parents also express willingness to participate in organizational processes. Thus, a little less than a third are ready to collect contributions independently, and about 14 percent are willing to take part in the work of school quality-check committees to control the organization of school meals for children on an ongoing basis. About a quarter of the respondents are ready to organize and conduct seminars for other parents to convince them to contribute to the organization of school meals.
Unfortunately, there are quite opposite examples as well. For instance, in the Naryn region, parents welcomed the fundraising idea during the seminar but changed their minds later. The parents’ decision was apparently affected by the statements of famous blogger Ulugbek Karybek Uulu, whose Youtube channel has more than 450 thousand subscribers. The blogger repeatedly spoke out against any, in his opinion, unreasonable parent fundraisers in Kyrgyzstan. His activity is also rumored to cause the dismissal of a school headmaster.

In Chui province, parents' social status has an impact: many migrants and unemployed live here. At the same time, school headmasters do not try to convince parents of the need to support the school feeding program and cite the Ministry of Education’s decree to prevent fundraising attempts. Issued in 2019, the decree prohibits school administration from illegally asking parents for money. However, many people forget that this prohibition refers to collecting money for school repairs and the purchase of various items for classrooms. As President’s spokesman Erbol Sultanaev said in February 2023, such expenses will be covered by the republican budget. However, increasing budget funding for school meals is not on the government’s agenda this year. Therefore, in the absence of additional sources and with current food prices, schools will again have to switch to serving a bun and a drink instead of a hot lunch.

There is still much educational work to be done among parents in the future. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that it is worth moving from expert speeches to dialogue and negotiations within communities. After all, parents, families, and representatives of various local communities are those who should make the change.