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Government-sponsored hot meals: School Feeding Programme handover done

On July 3, the UN World Food Programme (UN WFP) officially handed over the management of the School Feeding Programme in Armenia to the government.

The ceremony took place in the Best Western Plus Congress Hotel, Yerevan. It brought together all those who worked hard to provide primary school children nationwide with hot meals every day: RA Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports Zhanna Andreasyan, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to Armenia Sergey Kopyrkin, UN Resident Coordinator for Armenia Niels Scott, President of the Social and Industrial Foodservice Institute (SIFI) Vladimir Chernigov, and high-ranking representatives of international and governmental agencies.

As Mr. Chernigov remarked, “A thousand-mile road begins with a single step. We have been on this journey for over 13 years now. Today, we make another small step for the development of the programme and a giant leap in terms of what it has become.”

The WFP School Feeding Programme in Armenia launched in 2010, distributing products in the most food-insecure rural areas. As years passed, it gradually evolved into a vital human capital development platform, which includes financing of school meals from the state budget, comprehensive restoration of school canteen infrastructure, creation of school self-financing mechanisms through establishing school farms, renewed training of school canteen workers and administrative staff to organize school meals, and educating schoolchildren and their parents about the basics of healthy and well-balanced nutrition.

“It’s been a journey that was only possible because of a multiyear partnership with the Russian Federation, which helped us do planning because you need multiyear partnerships to be able to plan handovers,” WFP Representative and Country Director Nanna Skau said in her opening remarks.

“If it were not for the uninterrupted mutual support, we would not be here today to discuss the success of our country, which has already become an example for other states. Today, Armenia’s experience can serve as a model for implementing the school feeding programme,” said Zhanna Andreasyan, the Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports of the Republic of Armenia. “It is crucial that we were able to complete full nationalization of the programme as planned, which means that from January 2023, more than 100,000 children in grades 1 to 4 across the ten marzes of Armenia receive meals funded by the state budget.”

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kopirkin highlighted that Russia’s support over the years extended beyond financial assistance, and the partnership encompassed technical guidance, methodological support, and personnel training. “This programme has great potential. The programme’s overall budget totaled over USD 40 million, and we believe that the projects will contribute to the further development of strategic partnership between our countries and will help improve wellbeing and sustainability of Armenia," he added.

School feeding as community development driver

The School Feeding Programme is not just about providing children with meals at school. Numerous research studies confirm that the availability of school meals impacts the quality of education, helping improve children’s attendance and academic progress. Moreover, well-balanced school lunches become a lifestyle. Having learned the basics of healthy eating at school, the children take this knowledge home, thus contributing to better public awareness about healthy nutrition. In the near future, the school curriculum will include a healthy lifestyle subject course, according to Minister Andreasyan.

“The School Feeding Programme also helps strengthen the role of women in society. Most school cooks are women, and they get the opportunity to have a hand in improving school nutrition. We have already introduced the training modules for school cooks, and I believe it’s a good result. It proved that the programme offers unlimited opportunities,” the Minister said.

Much is done to ensure the sustainability of the programme new models and mechanisms to allow schools to organize school meals on their own are being piloted.

Thus, the sustainable school meals project was successfully implemented in Armenia’s remote northern Arpi community. The work was done in two directions:
1) Development of school production potential. To that end, greenhouses were established in two schools, and solar panels were installed in five schools.

2) Involvement of local businesses and small farmers through installing solar stations. Quarterly, the farmers allocate 30% of the income generated by the solar stations to the community development fund. Moreover, the first community poultry farm was established, and it provides a part of the products for school feeding.

A pilot project for the production of wholegrain flour is also being implemented. The schools of Tavush and Lori bake bread with the addition of such flour, making it much healthier than bread made of high-grade white flour.

The future of the programme

Satenik Mkrtchyan, Head of the School Feeding and Child Welfare Agency, highlighted the consistent efforts of the government and its resolution to continue working on that front, e.g. creation of a new school feeding strategy, introduction of an e-management system, and expansion of the school meals program, which will probably allow providing meals to senior schoolchildren and, of course, implementation of the program in the capital city, Yerevan.

“I think we will expand the programme next year to include schools in the capital, potentially benefiting an additional 50,000 children,” Minister Andreasyan confirmed.

In addition, it’s planned to consistently integrate the school farm infrastructure into the educational program. Through collaboration with local farmers, children develop agricultural skills and share them with their family members. Thus, working on school plots can help them decide on a future career.

It is worth noting that the partnership with WFP does not end with the transfer of the management of the School Feeding Programme to the government. WFP will continue to provide technical assistance and resources for the implementation of the programme, according to Niels Scott, UN Resident Coordinator for Armenia.

School feeding in Yerevan

During the handover ceremony, a separate session was dedicated to school feeding in Yerevan. The capital city infrastructure considerably differs from rural conditions, so it requires a special approach. To find out what can be done, the School Feeding and Child Welfare Agency conducted research in partnership with SIFI, the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports, and Yerevan Mayor’s Office. The research was done in two directions: a survey among school employees, parents, and children and an assessment of each school’s infrastructure. The Agency surveyed 1200 parents to ask about their attitude toward school feeding, listen to their preferences and suggestions, and discuss possibilities of their involvement in the provision of school meals.

“In 2021, we offered schoolchildren in Yerevan to write down what they are worried about and offer possible solutions. A 9th-grade student remarked in her report that the school canteen is not a business place where social inequality becomes evident and asked why Yerevan schools do not provide meals. Today, I want to tell the girl that the question is on the table,” Satenik Mkrtchyan said.

What is special about urban schools? First, it is a large number of students who do not go home immediately after classes but attend additional lessons and project groups. It means they stay away from home for a long time without a normal meal.

Another peculiarity is that more than half of the children do not have time to have breakfast every day, and those who eat breakfast do it on the go. This fact should be considered when launching the School Feeding Programme in Yerevan schools. Besides, the school curriculum should include a course on a healthy lifestyle and the importance of breakfast for children’s health. Conversations with parents are also advisable.

Another problem is what foods children mainly eat: products high in sugar, pastry, sweets, and carbonated drinks. The share of dairy products is minimal, while fruit and vegetables are rarely included in the diet.

“All these peculiarities make it clear why our children have health problems,” Minister Andreasyan said. “We have a lot of work to do. At this stage, it is crucial to understand how to make the School Feeding Programme in Yerevan most effective. The standard scheme will work here: 151 drams are allocated from the state budget to feed each child daily + 20 drams are assigned to pay kitchen workers. From September 2023, schools will officially have the position of cook. Yet, we must figure out which school feeding model is the most appropriate for the capital.”

The school infrastructure assessment conducted by the SIFI team showed that some schools do not have canteen premises. There are also schools which have these canteens in disrepair. However, just like in provinces, this issue is already being dealt with. As part of the program, school canteens will be renovated, and some schools will have new buildings, according to the Minister.

Much remains to be done to launch the School Feeding Programme in the capital. Based on his experience organizing free school meals in Russia, Vladimir Chernigov emphasizes collaboration with parents: “Because everything comes from the family.”

Gegashen school as example of successful WFP investment project

A day after the handover ceremony, the guests visited the school named after Razmik Stepanyan in Geghashen village of Kotayk marz to get acquainted with WFP investment projects on-site.

The school headmaster, Aznar Harutyunyan, showed the renovated canteen and kitchen and briefed on the school’s experience. Afterward, the guests were offered to taste dishes cooked for the children: buckwheat porridge, vinaigrette, boiled eggs, and fresh bread baked right at school.

After lunch, the delegation visited an intensive berry garden established with the support of WFP and SIFI. While the guests tasted delicious red-ripe raspberries straight from the bushes, the teachers spoke about the benefits of anti-hail nets that help protect the harvest. Thanks to proper protective methods, the raspberry harvest is rich and sufficient to make compote for the children and to sell the surplus to replenish the school budget.

The event ended with an interactive "Journey to the Healthy Food Universe" performance for schoolchildren. Through edutainment, the performance heroes taught the children about the principle of a healthy plate, inviting them to visit four planets symbolizing the four main components of a healthy plate: vegetables, wholegrains, protein-rich foods, and dairy products. Meanwhile, the guests watched how easy it is to spark children’s interest in healthy eating when presenting educational materials as a game.

“When it all started, it was hard to imagine that after a while, we would talk about numerous achievements that have already become the norm, are no longer some kind of miracle, but a part of everyday life and an opportunity for the children of Armenia to receive normal nutrition because children are the future of any country. Also, parents should not doubt that their children will be well-fed and healthy, will study better and participate in the school feeding process. I am confident that a plate of school meals, like a drop of water, reflects both global and personal, governmental and public. It concerns everyone and affects everyone”

SIFI President Vladimir Chernigov