Dageng Liu, WFP Representative in Timor-Leste
President José Ramos-Horta in his speech at the Timor-Leste Development Partners Meeting (TLDPM) on 10 June called for support for his vision “to have a Timor-Leste where no child dies at birth, and where every child is healthy, well-nourished, learning and safe”. School feeding is a good investment in a nation’s future that provides nutrition, health and education for every child.
Timor-Leste is a young country with 39 per cent of its population fallings between 0 and 14 years. Around 320,000 or one-quarter of Timor-Leste’s population are attending primary schools, making school feeding the largest and most significant way to make an impact on Timor-Leste’s future.
School feeding contributes to the education and well-being of children. A hungry child does not grow, cannot learn, and faces many health risks in the future. School feeding offers children a regular source of nutrients that are essential for their mental and physical development. Children are not the only ones who benefit. School feeding programmes can serve as springboards for food system transformation. Locally grown food is a nutritious, healthy, and efficient way to provide school children with a daily meal while, at the same time, bringing income and livelihood opportunities for smallholder farmers. School feeding also offers chances to teach children how to eat better while learning about sustainable lifestyles and healthy diets.
School feeding increases attendance and helps girls stay in school, especially into adolescence. This can be an effective way to prevent early marriage and delay first pregnancy – two outcomes that otherwise can trap women in poverty and chronic ill health, and consequently further widen inequalities.
The school feeding programme in Timor-Leste has been implemented since 2005 as part of WFP operations until it was taken over by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in 2011. The implementation of the national school feeding programme is now facing multiple challenges from budget allocation to administration structure. Findings from the 2020 Fill the Nutrient Gap (FNG) report highlights the importance of doubling the budget from 25 cents to 50 cents per meal to have a healthy and nutritious impact. Unfortunately, we have observed a reduced budget allocation to school feeding over the past 7 years from approximately $17. million in 2015 to $8.5 million in 2022.
The COVID-19-induced school closures have disrupted critical education, health and nutrition services delivered in and through schools, causing a learning crisis yet to be fully resolved.
The Timor-Leste Food and Nutrition Survey conducted in 2020 indicated the prevalence of a very high stunting rate of 47 per cent amongst children under 5, meaning every second child is too short for his/her age. The nutrition status is further worsened by the multiple shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic, the historical floods in 2021, and most recently the food and fuel price rise due to the ongoing Ukraine war.
In July 2021, the Government expressed its strong political commitment to school feeding by signing the declaration of commitment for the global School Meals Coalition.
While steps are being made by the Government to tackle those challenges, more needs to be done – and quickly. School health and nutrition must stay at the heart of the development agenda to unlock the potential of future generations. (*)