Ambovombe — The provision of school lunches to 215,000 children in 1,200 primary schools in southern Madagascar could be suspended by the end of January 2013 if the World Food Programme (WFP) fails to make up a funding shortfall of US$4.84 million. The funds are needed to cover the cost of running the feeding scheme from December 2012 to May 2013.
"Normally, we send out enough food to the schools for three months, but since the stock is so low, we are planning to send out only for a month," said Enrique Alvarez, head of the WFP sub-office in Ambovombe, on Madagascar's southern coast.
Elna Vavisoa, 10, from the village of Andranovato is a beneficiary of the school feeding programme. After crossing a river by boat to reach her school and spending a morning in the classroom, she receives a school lunch. While she usually only eats rice and manioc at home, the school meal includes boiled corn and vegetables.
"Sometimes, there is no food at home," she told IRIN. "My father is a fisherman and my mother sells the fish in the market. When my father doesn't catch anything, I ask my big sister to go find us some food."
Food insecurity worsens
Elna's village is in one of the most food-insecure regions of the country, where poor rains, locust infestations and flooding during the cyclone season mean that local farmers are unable to produce enough to feed their families for the whole year.
According to an assessment carried out by WFP in November 2012, 676,000 people in the country's south are at risk of severe food insecurity during the current lean season, the result of irregular rainfall during the 2011-2012 farming season. About half of these are in need of immediate assistance, which WFP is providing in the form of emergency food rations and food-for-work programmes.
The lean season normally occurs from October to January, but in recent years it has lasted until March. During these times, food prices rise as food availability dwindles.
"When there is no food, we eat the fruits from the cactus and prepare tamarinds with ashes," Hortensia Rasoanandrasana, a 47-year-old mother of 12, told IRIN. "When the children complain that they are hungry, parents tell them to wait until night time."
Rasoanandrasana, who lives in the village of Bedaro, 12km from the town of Amboasary, volunteers as a cook at the school where four of her children receive free lunches. "If these school lunches stop, I will soon be in debt, trying to feed my children," she said.
"The school lunches take pressure off the households, helping them to build up stock during the harvest season, so that the food lasts longer," WFP's Alvarez told IRIN.
"But the impact is much broader than just feeding the children. We started this programme in 2005 after we noticed that the percentage of children who finished school in this region was very low. The lunches are a development strategy for us; the students stay in school longer, learn better, and the community has to organize itself to prepare the lunches. They start to see the school differently; it becomes an important part of the village."
Alvarez added that, in the past, when WFP had shortages, parents brought food to the schools themselves, but the severity of this year's lean season makes that impossible. "If WFP suspends the programme due to lack of resources, it will be difficult for [parents] to keep the programme running," he said.
Because WFP buys most of the corn to supply the school feeding programme locally, the programme's suspension will also affect farmers like Maka, 39, from Tanandava Berano Village. He sells half of the two tons of corn he produces to WFP. "Before, I used to sell the corn on the market, but there was no profit," he told IRIN.
In 2006, Maka became a member of a local association of farmers that sell food to WFP and received training from the agency's NGO partners to improve his farming practices.
"I've been a farmer since I was 18, but when you work alone, you can't get much done," he said. "At the association, there are farmers who can tell you how to increase production."