Emily Youatt

How Meals at School Help the Kyrgyzstan Economy: 12 years after launching Food For Education, Mercy Corps looks back

It’s no secret that investing in childhood nutrition positively impacts physical development, health, learning and cognitive potential. But in Kyrgyzstan, Mercy Corps’ feeding programs in schools have positive, broad-reaching impacts on local economies, too.

As global economic progress continues to lag, more experts are suggesting that feeding programs in schools may actually be the simplest and cheapest method to fight embedded poverty. The catch? Measuring the progress of these programs takes a generation.

In Kyrgyzstan, Mercy Corps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kyrgyz Republic government are measuring the economic effects of the McGovern-Dole International Food For Education and Child Nutrition Program in poor villages across the country. While the long-term impacts of the program will not be known for several years, recent data collected by Mercy Corps staff suggests Food For Education is currently addressing nutritional, educational and economic shortcomings in Kyrgyzstan.

Most notably, preliminary evidence suggests that over the past four years micronutrient deficiencies and childhood stunting rates have significantly decreased in communities under the Food For Education umbrella.

And we already know that the returns of investing in childhood nutrition far outweigh the costs. According to a recent report by Save the Children, the direct cost of childhood malnutrition is $20 billion to $30 billion per year globally, and malnutrition translates to losses in GDP of up to 2 to 3 percent annually.

What’s more, adults who were malnourished as children earn 20 percent less, on average, than their well-nourished peers.

That’s why Mercy Corps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kyrgyz government launched the Food For Education program in 2001. By distributing commodities like cooking oil and flour to kindergartens and primary schools, investing in infrastructure repairs and by actively engaging communities in educational programs like cooking competitions and planting school and community gardens, Mercy Corps and the USDA are investing in long-term economic growth in Kyrgyzstan’s poorest villages.

The goal? Base-level childhood nutritional and educational development that will set the stage for stable, broad-reaching economic growth. By feeding and educating youth now, feeding programs in schools ensure that a healthier, more educated generation will enter the workforce in the future.

The reality is that a school meal may be the only meal a child receives in a day, and it can make the difference between future success and a lifelong struggle with poverty.

More than just a daily meal

The benefits of increased school enrollment and lowered dropout rates are already beginning to take effect in Kyrgyzstan. Since Food For Education’s launch, Mercy Corps has graduated 25 percent of all participating schools from the program.

This means that thousands of Kyrgyzstan’s schools are now independently supporting better health and education for Kyrgyzstan’s youth. Young students are already beginning to reap the benefits that will one day translate to broad economic change in a country that continues to struggle with a fickle economy.

Food For Education has already benefited more than 1 million youth in 2,300 institutions throughout Kyrgyzstan. And in a country where, on average, almost 40 percent of people live on less than $2 (U.S.) a day and where poverty rates reach up to 54 percent in some regions, school meals provide an incentive for families to send their children to school.

(Two kindergarten cooks square off in a “best chef” competition, using a limited array of fresh ingredients to create a school meal that’s nutritious — and delicious — for young children. Photo: Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan)

In Kyrgyzstan, 10 percent of children younger than 10 are currently at risk for severe mental retardation from iron deficiency. And in 2008, UNICEF found that two-thirds of infants age 6-24 months were iron and Vitamin A deficient. According to the CDC, in some rural regions of Kyrgyzstan, stunting rates due to deficiencies are as high as 30 percent.

To combat these widespread micronutrient deficiencies, Mercy Corps distributes fortified commodities like flour and oil to ensure that participating schools spend their limited budgets on more nutrient-rich foods like meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Food For Education’s commodity assistance has helped school administrators and teachers provide nutritional services to students and maintain quality hygiene standards.

Sustainable economic change at the local level

But providing commodities for nutritious school meals is only one piece of the development puzzle. The real challenge lies in promoting embedded, sustainable change at the local level.

This means that community engagement, parental involvement and local agricultural sourcing play a huge role in boosting the economic benefits of feeding programs in schools. So, for the past 12 years Mercy Corps has also emphasized educational aspects of the McGovern-Dole International Food For Education and Child Nutrition Program.

Here are some of the ways Mercy Corps supplements USDA commodity distributions to promote sustainable economic change:

1. Publicity and community engagement. In 2008 Food For Education launched training that emphasized menu planning for dietary diversity by using local products. To reinforce the training, annual cooking contests are now sponsored at the district, regional and national level. The competitions, which are judged by national dignitaries and received national press coverage each year, highlight the importance of good nutrition for Kyrgyzstan’s youth in a way that both engages and educates participants.

2. Parental Involvement. Thanks to ongoing nutritional training for school administrators, parents and teachers provided at community centers and schools, the involvement of parent committees at local schools increased by almost 20 percent in the 2011-12 school year from the previous year, from 77.7 percent to 97.2 percent. Private funding from parents and families has also increased at participating schools, which tells us that families see the value in investing in education and nutrition.

3. Building school gardens. Mercy Corps’ Food For Education program encourages schools and youth institutions to plant community and school gardens to supplement USDA commodities. The gardens not only provide additional nutritional substance, but they help students learn about local agriculture and nutritional variety. By promoting dietary diversity through gardening, participating schools expose students to a variety of nutritional foods that would have otherwise been unavailable to them.

4. Increased support from the Kyrgyz government. The training components of the Food For Education program have helped the Kyrgyz Ministry of Education appreciate the links between nutrition and economic improvement. Future support from the ministry will ensure that the impact of the Food For Education program lasts long after Mercy Corps steps out of the picture.

5. School infrastructure repairs. Infrastructure improvements as part of the Food For Education program mean that students have access to healthy, nutritionally-diverse meals cooked in hygienic settings every day. Improvements to school furniture, toilets, floors, windows, roofs and heating systems all improve the quality of the students’ learning environment. In 2012, national, regional and local governments contributed 47 percent of all infrastructure improvement costs at participating schools.

The inherent challenge in any kind of youth programming is that success is only quantifiable decades after the program’s launch. It’s a big investment, but if done right can make the difference between the health and economic success of villages, cities and whole countries.

So, 12 years after the launch of Food For Education, Mercy Corps is taking a step back to reflect on what is projected to be a very successful investment in Kyrgyzstan’s future. As we continue to closely monitor and evaluate Food For Education successes and shortcomings, we expect to see more palpable changes occurring in the schools and villages across Kyrgyzstan.

Emily Youatt is an intern with Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan.

Agriculture, Health Care