As the saying goes, hungry bellies have no ears. In Haiti, this proverb has become even more of a concern since the earthquake destroyed a large part of the country's educational system.
Schools can be rebuilt, but hungry children do not have the energy needed to learn. After the 2010 earthquake, Magalie George, principal of the République des États-Unis school in Port-au-Prince, was quick in deciding to request aid from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) school feeding program in Haiti, to which Canada is the largest donor of funds.
Magalie George knows that many children are still suffering from the effects of the earthquake. She herself was trapped for several hours under her desk, and a teacher and one student in her school perished in the rubble.
When classes resumed, there were many empty seats, but as soon as word spread that the school was providing lunch to pupils, classes filled up in no time. Soon the school grew to 1,350 pupils and 32 teachers
Through Canada's contribution to the school feeding programs, lunch was served to 275,000 school children in Haiti in 2012-2013. In total, 1.1 million were fed lunch each day, benefitting from the WFP initiative and the Haitian government's national school feeding program. Canada has supported the WFP lunch feeding program since 2006, and in August 2013 Canada announced renewed funding.
These results have contributed to reducing chronic hunger and malnutrition among schoolchildren, increasing enrolment and attendance and retention rates in primary schools, and improving children's ability to learn.
Parents come to Magalie George's school mid-morning to prepare a traditional Haitian dish of rice and lentils for the schoolchildren. This meal, though nourishing, is sometimes, unfortunately, their only meal of the day.
The school is located in a neighbourhood that is home to small businesses and shopkeepers, and parents can see that their children are learning and getting a square meal on a regular basis.
One kindergarten teacher, Dominique Bénéche, can testify to the benefits of the program. "All the children at the school get a meal. As soon as they see the food, they become more active. They learn better once they've had a good meal."
The school feeding program is an important component of the Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti, established in March 2010. The Government of Canada works with the Government of Haiti, the WFP, and other international and Haitian partners to keep it running.
The program ensures that schoolchildren get a meal and gives parents the chance to attend to other matters equally important to the country's reconstruction. Not having to worry about finding food for even some of their children can provide them some relief. Jean Hénoc Pernier is the follow-up officer for the WFP in Haiti. He also sees the benefits of school feeding: "This project reaches 21 percent of those attending school nationwide.
In addition to increasing school attendance, this one simple meal is helping Haitian schoolchildren improve their grades and is giving youth the possibility of a better future for themselves and for Haiti. The Canadian-funded school feeding program is also an important economic stimulus for the country: up to 25 percent of the food used to feed the schoolchildren has to be purchased from local producers. The rice and corn that come from all over Haiti helps to build the local economy. Not only do the growers benefit, but so do all those involved in processing and transporting the food.
Canada's international development food security strategy includes: increasing the availability of food by sustainably enhancing agricultural productivity, improving access to food, and ensuring food safety at the various steps in the production and transportation chain.
As agriculture is Haiti's main economic activity, employing close to half the population, Canada is supporting the country's growth through its involvement in increasing food security as well as through the school feeding program.
In a country where the need is so great, the schools become a place where the spirit and the body can be fed.