Access to education is a human right. In Benin, however, challenges to achieving universal primary education persist. In rural areas, low enrollment and attendance rates are due to a number of factors. Families living in poverty are unable to afford to send their children to school. Although the government has eliminated primary school fees, parents must still buy uniforms and school supplies for their children. There is also an opportunity cost associated with sending girls to school rather than keeping them at home where they can help their mothers with household chores and take care of younger siblings. Cultural norms dictate that older children provide essential labor both in the household as well as on family farms. In some areas, schools are located so far from rural villages that students who walk home for a midday meal often do not return to school in the afternoon.
To address these challenges, CRS began implementing a community managed school feeding program with the support of the United States Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace program. The program is designed to provide an incentive for poor families to send their children to school. It serves a daily meal to 7,500 schoolchildren, encouraging them to come to school and providing them the nutrients they need to be attentive learners.
But it does much more. By engaging the community in the daily management of the school canteen, the program encourages parents and community members to play a more active role in their children’s education. This type of engagement is one of the key strategic priorities in CRS’ education work.
More than Just a Daily Meal
Unlike other school feeding programs, which often provide food rations but little or no training and technical assistance, CRS strengthens the capacity of Parent (or “s’”) Associations to manage the canteens effectively. Each Parent Association establishes and oversees a School Canteen Management Committee (SCMC). The committees receive substantial training from CRS that focuses on the roles and responsibilities of committee members, storage and inventory techniques, nutrition and hygiene, and mobilization of resources. Literacy classes also help to ensure that non-literate members of the community can fully participate.
From CRS Food to Local Food
The ultimate goal is that locally managed canteens continue to thrive following CRS’ withdrawal, and thus keep children in school. To make this vision a reality, each community developed its own sustainability plan at the beginning of the seven-year project. The trainings provided by CRS helped to build the capacity of Parent Associations to carry out their plan. The introduction of school farms added local food contributions to the school canteen. Exchange visits between SCMCs allowed communities to share best practices and solutions to problems.
Over time, the capacity of the communities to supply enough local food and their own finances progressively increased. During the first few years of the project, CRS provided schools with food rations, while the communities complemented this with local vegetables, spices and firewood. In later years, rations were only provided during periods of traditional food shortages. During the final year of the project, no external food assistance was given. This strategy of progressively decreasing food rations helped communities to increase their own contributions over time and left them better prepared to sustain the canteens with their own resources when the project ended.
Gains in Enrollment, Attendance and Achievement
The results so far have been positive. School enrollment and attendance rates have increased following the establishment of the school feeding program. More than 1,000 additional girls are now enrolled in program schools. Attendance rates have increased by 20% over the life of the program. School directors report that children now come to school on their own initiative requesting to be enrolled.
Children are also performing better in school. Students in one district explained why: previously, they would have to walk home to find something to eat during the mid-morning break, often returning late to class which forced them to rush through their assignments or exams. With a meal provided each day on school grounds, students are no longer tardy and have more time to complete their class work.
Parents as Active Partners in Education
One of the biggest indicators of success is that communities have gone beyond simply managing school feeding. In one school, the President of the Parent Association receives the names of absent students every day from the parents who prepare the meals. The President then visits each household to determine why the children are out of school. A teacher from another school noted that “the Parent Association is more motivated because of the canteen. Now their members come to school everyday, not just when there’s a problem.” A school director added that “through the canteen, parents have become active partners with school staff in the education of their children.”
It is no wonder that one parent remarked that “the school canteen is like the branch of a thorn tree that pulls your shirt and hooks you in.” Indeed, thanks to the school feeding program, parents have now been “pulled in” and are realizing other ways they can be involved in their children’s education.