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Food for Thought

June 18, 2002

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    Parents, teachers and students have already begun to see the benefits from the distribution of the high-energy biscuits, which meet the Ministry of Health's daily nutritional standards. Photo: Ezra Simon/Mercy Corps Photo:

Earlier this year, 11-year-old Ibrahim was on the verge of dropping out of the fourth grade.

"We were worried," said Alamin Abdirahman, the director of Shitel Elementary School in Shitel, Eritea. "He is a clever student."

When asked why he was not coming to school when he is such a good student, Ibrahim said, "I was too hungry. I stayed home to make sure that I got something to eat."

Ibrahim lives in Falhito, a village 13 kilometers from the small school. Every school day he walks three hours each way through extreme heat and rugged terrain to attend class.

Ibrahim's plight is not uncommon in Eritrea, a small country situated on the Horn of Africa. With an average annual income of $710, Eritrea is one of the poorest nations in the world. It is also a country that suffers from widespread hunger and food insecurity.

The impact of this is especially felt in its schools. Absenteeism rates are high with many children forced to stay at home to help their families to grow food and tend to livestock. Others miss class because of hunger-related illnesses.

In March 2002, Mercy Corps began a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded Global Food for Education Initiative program in rural Eritrean schools. The program aims to improve the education environment in selected schools through the provision of high-energy biscuits, PTA training, school improvement grants and girls education promotion activities.

Parents, teachers and students have already begun to see the benefits from the distribution of the high-energy biscuits, which meet the Ministry of Health's daily nutritional standards.

"The biscuits are making a big difference. Before the biscuits, 15-20 students were absent every day," said Alamin Abdirahman. "Now, only 6-8 are absent per day. Teachers are busy giving make-up classes because so many students have come back to school since we started distributing biscuits."

"The drop-out rate normally increases a lot at this time of the year because the heat and lack of water force families to move with their livestock to cooler highland areas. This year, the dropout rate has remained stable. To us, this is success," added Alamin Abdirahman.

In addition to helping to increase school attendance, the program is improving the performance of students while they are at school.

"Before, I felt hungry and it was hard to concentrate in class. Now, when I eat biscuits, I study," exclaimed Selam Fitwi, a seven-year-old girl who attends Shitel Elementary School.

Currently in its pilot phase, the project will expand next school year to benefit up to 35,000 students in a total of 150 primary schools.

Mercy Corps also manages a Global Food for Education Initiative program in Kyrgyzstan.