Mothers who grow and cook food for other children | Daily News
Home-grown heroes:

Mothers who grow and cook food for other children

When you give a child a meal, you are feeding the future generation. A healthy meal given to a young child is so much more than food. It gives them the nutrition and energy needed to play, learn, grow and thrive – key ingredients which will help them reach their fullest potential later in life.

Damayanthi stands outside her house in Wilgamuwa, Matale surrounded by her husband, four children and more than one hundred chickens. A school meal caterer for over6 years, Damayanthi has been growing produce and cooking meals for 40 children enrolled in the national school meal programme in the Srimath Montigopallawa primary school nearby. Her half acre of garden space is filled with fruits, vegetables and chicken coops. “Gardening is my passion,” says Damayanthi. “It gives me so much joy to cook meals using produce from my own garden and feed children who are not my own.”

Damayanthi is one of thousands of mothers who have taken up work as caterers to provide food for over one million school children enrolled in the national school meal programme.The advantages of linking smallholder farmers like Damayanthi with the school meal programme are manifold. It facilitates better education by providing children with the nourishment needed to learn while providing smallholder farmers with a steady, reliable source of income.

But this model, like many other food system models, can only become resilient if it is made sustainable. Unfortunately for Damayanthi, what started as a profitable business to supplement her husband’s income became increasingly difficult to sustain.

“The school meal programme has pre-determined nutritional requirements for the children’s meals,” says Damayanthi. “The children have to be given eggs twice a week to ensure they receive adequate protein. But the price I paid for one egg accounted for 2/3rd of what I am given as payment for each meal. I was barely making any profit and two years ago I was ready to give up.”

Damayanthi learnt of the Home Grown School Feeding Programme, a project initiated by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which supports local agricultural production to enhance the quality and sustainability of the national school meal programme. By providing tools, training and other assistance, the Home Grown School Feeding programme empowers smallholder farmers and caterers like Damayanthi so they are able to self-produce nutritious meals and sustain their school catering as a profitable business model.

Damayanthi was among the first participants of WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding pilot project which commenced in 2020. “With assistance from the Government and WFP, I was able to set up a poultry farm of 40 chickens,” explains Damayanthi. “Along with the chicks, I also received poultry feed, chicken coops and training on rearing poultry. In just 6 months, I have more than tripled the number of hens from forty to one hundred and thirty! I collect an average 50 eggs a day.”

Water scarcity is a recurring problem faced by communities in Matale.“Every year, I faced the same problem of not having adequate water to maintain my crops,” says Damayanthi, describing the cyclical pattern of hardship she encountered. “Through WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding project, I received a water tank which means that I can now store water and use it for my crops during times of restricted water supply.” She was also provided with gardening equipment and nutrient-dense plants and seeds to improve her home garden along with training to cultivate nutritious crops.

Two of Damayanthi’s children suffer from epilepsy and need regular treatment. “My husband works as a clerk at the Education Department. His income was only sufficient to pay for my sons’ treatment and settle some loans we had taken,” says Damayanthi, describing their financial difficulties. “With support from WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding Programme, I am able to sustain my school meal catering business to feed children healthy meals. We now have adequate money to meet all our basic needs.”

By working with the Government, WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding project helps strengthen the sustainability of the school feeding programme eco-system so that smallholder farmers are better able to self-produce healthy, diverse and fresh food for schoolchildren. The programme also ensures that the caterers and smallholder farmers – largely made up of mothers from poor, rural communities - gain access to a steady source of income.

“Many of the children come to school on an empty stomach and eagerly wait for me to serve them their meals. I can see how their energy levels pick up after they’ve eaten,” says Damayanthi as she talks of the schoolchildren.

Describing the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Damayanthi says, “The pandemic hit us hard. All of us, except for my husband, contracted the virus. Moreover, schools have been shut which means that I am no longer able to provide meals to the school.”

WFP helped set up a small marketplace nearby for Damayanthi to sell her fruits and vegetables.WFP also linked Damayanthi with the families of the schoolchildren she normally provides food to. By selling the eggs to them at subsidized rates Damayanthi is able to earn an income while the families of the schoolchildren receive eggs at affordable prices.

Damayanthi describes how much her life has improved since joining WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding Programme me Grown , “My garden and chickens give us so much more than what we put into it. It not only gives us food but also financial security and hope for a better future.”

WFP is working towards expanding its Home Grown School Feeding Programme to assist up to 7,000 farming families and feed 170,000 schoolchildren across several districts in Sri Lanka. The programme will enhance national food systems and boost local economies to help lift communities out of the cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

NOTE: In commemoration of World Food Day, these stories of rural communities who are playing a role in helping to improve local agri-food systems towards better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life for all, are compiled in collaboration with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

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