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School lunches provide critical lifeline in drought-affected Kenya

WAJIR DISTRICT, Kenya (September 1, 2011) — Whether they were let through by the bigger children, or squeezed through unnoticed, many of the smallest children were at the front when head teacher Habiba Mohamed Shuriye gave the order to serve the lunch. They held out an assortment of bowls, cups and jugs to be filled from the vats of steaming porridge.

UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on one school's efforts in Kenya to feed children and families their only meal each day.

Starting at mid-morning in the dusty yard of the Catholic Integrated School in Wajir, hundreds of children gather each day for this event. Situated in north-eastern Kenya, one of the areas hardest hit by prolonged drought in the entire region, the school is following a national policy of continuing school lunches during the summer vacation to ensure that children are fed.

"I think this is the only meal they are getting today," said Shuriye, overseeing the line as lunch progressed. "It is only this."

School lunches cherished

Habiba Mohamed Shuriye, head teacher at Catholic Integrated School in Wajir District, Kenya, serves children high-nutrition porridge funded by UNICEF. | © UNICEF Kenya/2011/Njuguna

© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Njuguna

Habiba Mohamed Shuriye, head teacher at Catholic Integrated School in Wajir District, Kenya, serves children high-nutrition porridge funded by UNICEF.

By the time this session was over, 1,280 children were fed. About 60 elderly people from the surrounding neighborhood also got a meal. "This is a very poor area," noted Shuriye.

Just finishing his lunch, Ada Abdi Mathow, 11, had no complaints. "I like it," he said. "It's always tasty." More fortunate than most, he said he had eaten a breakfast of tea and anjera (local pancakes) and had supper at night.

But for many of Ada's classmates, lunch was, indeed, the only meal of the day. And from the small family groups that dotted the school yard, it soon became clear that the 5.29 ounce portions of porridge were going a lot further than feeding individual students. Often, the lunch was being shared with younger brothers and sisters.

In one of the groups, Amina Bashir was holding the bowl for her 16-month-old son, Ikhlas Salat. With porridge on his beaming face, he turned briefly to give a curious glance to visitors before returning to the bowl. Rarely have school lunches been so cherished by so many.

Dangerously malnourished

An elderly blind woman receives high-nutrition porridge provided by Save the Children and funded by UNICEF at Catholic Integrated School in Wajir District, Kenya. | © UNICEF Kenya/2011/Njuguna

© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Njuguna

An elderly blind woman receives high-nutrition porridge at Catholic Integrated School in Wajir District, one of the areas worst affected by prolonged drought in north-eastern Kenya.

Elsewhere in the town of Wajir, in the stabilization unit of the district hospital, the children were not so happy. This is the hospital ward where those who have become dangerously malnourished are admitted. Doing his daily rounds, Nurse-in-Charge Mohammed Farah has seen a steady rise in the number of children coming in under-weight.

One of the latest to be admitted, Misik Abd, just four months old, was suffering from anemia caused by malnutrition. She was receiving a blood transfusion through a vein in her scalp as she slept.

In the next bed, restless and crying, was Hussein Billow, eight months old. His mother, Saran Dibit, tried to comfort him.

"He was not breastfeeding very well and was already sickly,” she said, adding that when the drought came, the family's livestock died and they ran short on food. That was when Hussein's condition became much worse. Now he was out of danger, but his arms were still stick-like and his eyes sunken.

Stepped-up response

With measures such as lunch servings in local schools and widespread food distribution, the rise in the cases of malnutrition in Kenyan children under five years of age should be slowed. Supporting therapeutic feeding programs here and in the other drought-affected districts of Kenya, UNICEF is committed to stepping up these efforts.

The latest figures in Wajir District show that in the worst-hit areas, up to half of all households need food aid to help them through the crisis.

Author: Rob McBride

Source: UNICEF

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