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Food for thought: the school lunch scheme linking London and Liberia

It’s breakfast time in Domagbamatma (population: 63) in the depths of the Liberian rainforest, but there’s no food in evidence in the home of Massa Kamara. The eight-year-old has been up since dawn, collecting firewood, fetching water.

Now she’s ready for school in a crisp white shirt and navy-blue skirt in her family’s muddy, two-room shack.

In the narrow porch there’s a pile of rags, some carrier bags, a few bowls and a couple of plastic chairs. In a UK home it would look like stuff waiting to go to the tip. Here, it represents this family’s entire earthly possessions.

Food for thought: the school lunch scheme linking London and Liberia
Massa Kamara, who has a 40-minute trek to get to the Vorkor public school in the Liberian rainforest, receiving her Mary’s Meals lunch of rice and beans. Photograph: Chris Watt

Liberia is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and the Kamaras are one of its poorest families. They eke out a living growing vegetables on the land around the shack.

In families that hover as close to subsistence as this one, sending their children to school makes little sense. Learning to read and write, to do addition and subtraction, might be an investment in a long-term future, but it doesn’t put food on the table today or tomorrow.

And yet Massa is setting off on the 40-minute trek to school. This morning it’s dry: when the rain is pouring down, as it often does at this time of year, Massa carries her uniform in an old carrier bag to keep it dry, and changes into it when she reaches school. As we walk she speaks of the subject she likes best (English), her friends, and how she hopes one day to move to the city.

At the Vorkor public school in a village near the regional centre Tubmanburg, smoke is curling from an open-sided “kitchen”, where several women are busy over a fire preparing today’s dinner in vast pots. In a couple of hours’ time, Massa, who has an old margarine tub in her bag, will line up with her classmates to have it filled with rice and beans. At Vorkor, mealtime isn’t just an important part of the pupils’ day: it’s the most important part of the day. And it’s because her family know she will receive a nutritious meal here that they make sure Massa never misses school.

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Three thousand miles away, at roughly the same time, pupils at Good Shepherd primary in west London are also sitting down to their lunch; and though they don’t know Massa and haven’t even heard of Vorkor school, pupils at the two schools are crucially connected. Because students at Good Shepherd are fundraisers for Mary’s Meals, the NGO that funds school dinners at Vorkor and 2,357 other schools in 18 countries across the world. And while the charity’s supporters come from across the entire community, in the UK and elsewhere, there’s something particularly heartwarming about the idea of kids in one part of the world trying to make things fairer for children somewhere else.

That’s very much how it’s seen at Good Shepherd primary, according to the school’s headteacher, Imogen Lavelle. “We believe it’s our duty to help schools in countries such as Liberia,” she says. “So far we’ve raised more than £3,000 – the children have had own-clothes days, wear-your-pyjamas-to-school days, cake sales.”

Blessing Johnson, a kindergarten pupil at Kondh school in Bomi County, receiving a meal. Photograph: Chris Watt

That £3,000 will go a long way: it costs Mary’s Meals the astonishingly small sum of £13.90 to feed a child for a whole school year, so the Good Shepherd is feeding a school of roughly the same sort of size as it is, around 250 pupils, from one end of the academic year to the other. That means a lot to Good Shepherd pupils such as Nathan Olano, 10, who’s in Year 6.

“We know how hard it would be to do our lessons without our school dinner,” he says. And indeed, research for Mary’s Meals among the schools where it is working bears this out: in one survey, the percentage of teachers agreeing that “children in my class never complain of hunger” increased from 7% to 87% after the introduction of Mary’s Meals, while 98% of pupils said they found it easier to concentrate on their lessons once they had a full stomach.

It gives children at Good Shepherd plenty of food for thought. “I sometimes think about what it would be like to go to school and get no lunch,” says Nathan’s classmate Darcie Meade, also 10. “Especially if you’ve had no breakfast either. Raising money for schoolchildren in countries like Liberia has made me a lot more aware of how the world is stacked against some communities.”

Evi Chaudhari, also 10, says it’s given her hope – not just for children like Massa, but for her entire generation across the planet. “It makes me feel that if we can change the world while we’re still kids, how much more can we do when we’re older?”

It costs Mary’s Meals just £13.90 to feed one schoolchild in Liberia for a whole year. Photograph: Chris Watt

Mary’s Meals operates on a simple model. It was in Malawi in 2002 that a former fish farmer called Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, who’d reinvented himself as an aid worker, had a conversation with a boy whose mother was dying of an Aids-related illness. MacFarlane-Barrow asked what he could do to help, and the boy replied that what he needed was easy: food to eat, and a school to go to. MacFarlane-Barrow launched Mary’s Meals as a result. It now feeds more than 1.5 million children daily, with a budget of around £16.5m, almost 90% of which comes from donations.

“One meal for one child costs just 7p – that’s pocket money even the youngest children have,” says Kim Webster, a spokesperson for Mary’s Meals. At a time when development often seems overwhelmingly complex and expensive, the easy digestibility and comparative cheapness of the need to feed and educate children is a big part of its success. And Mary’s Meals manages to keep overheads low by recruiting volunteers – in practice these are usually mothers or grandmothers with kids in the relevant school – to run their kitchens.

There’s still, though, a long way to go. Unesco estimates that across the world 258 million children between the ages of six and 17 miss out on school because of poverty. It’s children who bear the brunt of global poverty, every which way you look: they make up 30% of the world’s population, but account for 50% of its poorest people. Many of these children are in Africa, where 228 million live in what the UN classes as extreme poverty; in sub-Saharan Africa, one child in three is stunted due to malnutrition.

Blessing Johnson, whose parents died of Ebola soon after she was born, with her aunt Zoe. Photograph: Chris Watt

Even in the regions and schools that Mary’s Meals support, the terrain and weather conditions sometimes make food deliveries impossible. On one recent morning in Liberia, a river connection to a remote local school was impassable because of rains. Bags of porridge, rice and beans that had been stacked up on the bank for the short voyage were loaded back into a vehicle. Across the water we could see the faces of children who would be getting no school dinner until the water receded.

Food is not the only challenge for young people in Liberia.

One of the kindergarten children at Kondh school in Bomi County is Blessing Johnson, four. Her mother, Ma-tenneh, died of Ebola the day after she was born; a week later, her father, Molu, died of it, too. Blessing is being raised by her mother’s sister, Zoe, who already has four children of her own; to know her niece is getting fed at school makes a huge difference to the family.

Before Ebola, of course, there was civil war, 14 years of it, in which more than 200,000 Liberians died and more than 1 million were uprooted.

At another school, there is a boy who’s much older than anyone else called Waharbu Zinah. He’s 19, but he’s only been at school for six years. At the age of three he was kidnapped from his village by soldiers, and even after the war ended in 2003 he was effectively enslaved. “I looked after the man who had been the boss-man of the soldiers; I had to fetch and carry for him,” he explains. “I was just a small kid – I had no chance on my own.” He finally escaped when he was 13, and settled in Lowah; he works on a farm to support himself.

After being kidnapped by soldiers at the age of three, Waharbu Zinah, now 19, is in school, and benefiting from the Mary’s Meals scheme. Photograph: Chris Watt

“I don’t expect to see my parents again – I’ve no idea what happened to them. The only way I can have a future is if I provide one for myself – and I’m doing my best to do that.” Getting fed at school, he tells me, is the deal-breaker that makes it possible for him to afford to be educated, and furthers his dream of one day going to college.

Seeing Waharbu’s tall frame squeezed behind a dilapidated desk, paying careful attention to the young man just a few years older than him who’s teaching reading from the school’s single blackboard, is a humbling experience. He may not be the sort of pupil the children at the Good Shepherd have in mind when they’re fundraising, but what Mary’s Meals is offering him is the most important gift of all: a second chance.

Mary’s Meals paid for Joanna Moorhead’s visit to Liberia

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