Christmas appeal: School gardens feed young minds

Mary's Meals school gardens allow children to enjoy the fruits of their own labour. Picture: Esme Allen
Mary's Meals school gardens allow children to enjoy the fruits of their own labour. Picture: Esme Allen
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IN THE village of Julijuah in Bomi County, they are extremely proud of their school garden. There are rows of potato greens, peppers, okra, sweet potato, cassava and plantains, all carefully tended by the children and teachers on land donated and cleared by the local community.

The garden is important for two reasons. Firstly, food is short in Liberia and 40 per cent of children are stunted by malnutrition. Despite being a lush, fertile country, it can only produce a third of its own food because of the devastation caused to the agricultural sector during the 14 years of civil war up to 2003, making it dependent on expensive imports. The mainly rural population grows crops on their small patches of land, but often these have to be sold to make ends meet. Their main source of protein is anything caught in the bush, protected species or not, and includes deer, groundhog, scaly anteaters, monkeys and, during the war, frogs.

Feeding 113,000 children a day at its 364 schools, in a country where most of the roads are unsurfaced, amounts to a huge operation for Mary’s Meals. The rice comes from India, corn-soya blend and multivitamins from South Africa and peas from Canada and Argentina. These extra challenges push the cost of feeding a child once a day in school to £20 a year here, higher than the Mary’s Meals’ global average of just £10.70.

“We import nearly 400 tonnes of food a month. It’s a lot of physical labour for our staff, lifting it on to trucks, then it’s sent into the bush to schools,” says country director Chris MacLullich. “On 16 to 18 days a month, the trucks are delivering, the rest of the time they’re being repaired. But we manage it and we’re proud of our 96 per cent feeding rate. If the food is there in the schools, the children will come and when we start feeding, attendance increases by a third in the first month.”

School gardens are one of the things Mary’s Meals insists a school is committed to providing before they will begin feeding. Along with latrines, a kitchen, volunteer cooks and secure storage for the sacks of food, the garden is a key element in harnessing a sense of ownership among the local community.

“We used to take the food and leave it to the school but then we heard they were charging to buy peppers and salt to add and we don’t allow fees, so we decided to introduce gardens. If we grow things like pepper, pineapple, plantain, cabbage, they can all be added to meals for the children, and some sold too,” says Joseph Flomo Goelo, assistant country director/head of programmes.

Working in partnership with the community, Mary’s Meals aims to provide a more sustainable kind of aid and a long-term solution to poverty and hunger.

“The school is a catalyst for other things and the food an extrinsic motivation, and a bit of a bargaining chip with communities. We say, here’s the food, you have to fix the latrines. Or here’s the food but you have to start a garden,” says Mr MacLullich. “The gardens aren’t just about growing food, they’re also about encouraging a sense of ownership and working together.”

Back up at the school, where the volunteer cooks stir rice and beans over a charcoal fire, it won’t be long before this year’s crop of peppers and okra are being added to the mix and giving the children a taste of their own efforts.

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