There is a saying – “A hungry stomach has no ears.”
When schoolchildren are hungry, they can’t concentrate, and they lose interest in school. In Fizinana, Madagascar, food starts to run short during the lean period from November to March. Many children refuse to go to school because they are hungry, and end up dropping out entirely.
In 2010, fifty parents organized themselves to provide food for students at the public primary school in Fizinana, a village 300 kilometres south of the capital city, Antananarivo. During the lean season, more than a hundred students now eat lunch at school four days a week.
Marie Claire Raharovelo is a mother of four, and one of the farmers who initiated the school lunches. Wearing a straw hat over her plaited hair and an orange wrap-around skirt printed with white flowers, she talks excitedly about how the parents got together to organize the school meals.
She explains: “The [lunch service] starts up in November and runs until late February. Every day except Friday, which is market day, three mothers prepare all the necessary supplies for meals. The students only have to bring firewood.”
The school provided an unused building to serve as the kitchen and dining hall. During the current school year, 162 children ate their lunch at school during the lean season. The school kitchen cooked nearly 14 kilograms of rice a day.
The farmers collect and store supplies to make the lunches. Mrs. Raharovelo says: “We first met during the harvest period between March and late June. Each parent brought 15 kilograms of paddy rice. Just before school started in October, we met again to de-husk the rice.”
Christian Razafitsirahonana is the school principal. He stands in the schoolyard, wearing an apron. He is tired after the day’s lessons, and his hands are covered in white chalk dust. He says the lunch service is a complete success. Mr. Razafitsirahonana adds: “There has been no truancy during this academic year.” He adds proudly, “I am happy to be here. The students have changed – they are enthusiastic and participate in school.”
Because of the success of the lunch program, parents in neighbouring villages have started sending their children to the school in Fizinana. The principal explains: “This year, the school has 162 students, up from 89 in 2009. All the children finished school this year, which is essential for us as teachers.” He is pleased to add that, “Teachers are also entitled to use the school kitchen.”
The school lunches offers other advantages for parents like Mrs. Raharovelo. She says, “We have more time to devote to working in the fields because the children stay at school during lunchtime.”
The program has attracted outside assistance. Mrs. Raharovelo says, “An association has provided yams to cook with the rice, and an NGO has refitted our kitchen and dining hall.” She adds, “With or without help, we will continue to support our children – the [lunch program] will be here forever.”