Interview: Jessica Garrels of Catholic Relief Services in Laos

Laos has a dream of “a prosperous country, with a healthy population, free from food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty.” This stated goal of the government is being pursued with the help of the U.S. McGovern-Dole global school lunch program. McGovern-Dole, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issued a grant to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to provide school meals in Laos.

In the following interview Jessica Garrels of CRS Laos updates us on how this food for education plan is doing. She also warns of the possibility the program could be eliminated in budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

How many children are receiving school meals from CRS in Laos?

Under our initial project from the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) that started in September of 2012 and ran until this May, nearly 36,000 primary-school students were served across six districts in Savannakhet Province, which is located in the southern part of the country.

Under our current project from USDA, which began last October and will continue until 2021, some 40,000 primary-school students will be served meals across seven districts in Savannakhet Province.

USDA Food for Education and CRS provide lunches for primary school children in 384 schools in 6 provinces to encourage attend
USDA Food for Education and CRS provide lunches for primary school children in 384 schools in 6 provinces to encourage attendance and enrollment. USDA and CRS contribute commodity foods, and the community supplements with vegetables. Here, students at Dong Savanh school attend classes, enjoy recess and eat their school lunches on a typical school day.

Can you describe the impact of the meals on child nutrition and class attendance?

The final evaluation on our first project showed that student hunger decreased dramatically over the course of the project. In fact, at the beginning of the project, when students were asked about their hunger levels during the school day, nearly half of the students reported being ‘hungry’ or ‘very hungry’ as compared with only eight percent of students at the end of the project. The ration per student for the first project consisted of rice, Vitamin-A fortified vegetable oil, and lentils or green-split pea, plus any condiments, vegetables, or other extras provided by the community. For example, a typical meal could consist of rice soup or fried rice.

Another finding from the final evaluation showed that students became more ‘attentive’ by the end of the project, from 68% at the beginning of the project to nearly 90% at the end of the project.

And, teachers reported that students attended school more regularly, from 67% of teachers reporting regular attendance to 86% at the end of the project. In particular, teachers and parents both noted that, before the project, students would go home for lunch and not come back for the afternoon sessions; they reported that afternoon attendance greatly improved after the introduction of school meals and other activities.  This is very important in terms of improved literacy as ‘time on task’ is an important factor in student success.

Further, our final evaluation revealed that 60% of parents reported that school feeding was an important factor in the decision to send their children to school. Parents noted the following benefits: It enabled parents to work through the whole day; it reduced the pressure on household finances; children remained at school the whole day and did not ‘skip’ afternoon classes; and children were enthusiastic about going to school.

Are the school meals funded by the United States McGovern-Dole program?

Yes – CRS receives commodities from USDA sufficient to provide a school meal each day of the school year. USDA also provides direct funding to support other activities included in the project – for example, training for teachers to improve their skills in teaching reading and writing.

Is there enough funding to continue the meals the rest of the year?

Congress passed a final FY17 appropriations bill in May that provided level funding for McGovern-Dole programs compared to the previous year. In the Administration’s budget request for FY18, however, the Administration proposed zeroing out all funding for McGovern-Dole. We know there are many in Congress that support this program though, and we hope they will continue to do so in FY18.

How can someone help CRS in Laos?

The best way to support CRS in Laos is to donate to the organization. Fortunately, we are able to work with competent staff on the ground and have access to robust marketplaces in larger towns, so that enables us to use contributions to support the local workforce and economy. Contributions enable us to complement the funds already received – for example, contributions could help us do a study to better understand the connection between student handwashing with soap and a reduction in student absences. Or, they could enable us to respond to an unanticipated, in-country emergency such as flooding or landslides.

People could also let their Congressional representatives know that they support the U.S. funding programs like McGovern-Dole. At the end of the day, it is Congress that makes the final decision on whether these programs continue or end, since it controls the government’s purse-strings.