We may not have the fondest memories of our school lunches when we were children. I suspect, however, that they were more important to the rhythm of our day than we remember. When a group of Trustees travelled to the Taplejung District of Nepal in 2018, a number of the schools we visited asked if we would give financial support to provide lunches for children. Many children in this area have a basic meal early in the day, probably after doing their share of household chores, and then walk for up to two hours to get to school in time for a 10.00am start. Through the provision of HTUK, at least most of the schools now have a water supply but the children were having nothing to eat during the day. Many would not return home until after 6.00 pm. Concentration flagged noticeably during afternoon lessons, some children would take themselves off early and some would not go to school at all.
What could we do? We are a small charity whose core role is to train teachers and to support better health. Our budget could not sustain the cost of providing food on every school day to over 1700 children. Could we build kitchens to make it possible for local people to prepare lunches at schools? The price would again be prohibitive, and it would not be fair to favour one or two places only. Our colleagues at REED Nepal then made a suggestion.
If we could provide an insulated lunchbox for each child, and if the parents could be persuaded to put in the box an extra portion from their morning meal, the problem might be solved. As a trial, 515 children of Primary age in 7 schools were provided with lunchboxes. All the parents were invited into school so that the teachers could explain the idea. Would it work?
On our latest Trustee trip in November 2019, we crossed the suspension bridge from the village of Chiruwa and made the short steep climb to the school at Phoktanglung. We arrived just before the lunch bell. The bell went and the children queued up outside the staff room to be called forward by name to collect their lunchbox. It was rather like a Prize Giving ceremony! A bit of ritual, however, is probably a useful bit of the routine. No-one wants to be left out. They wash their hands at the water fountain then sit down on the grass … an idyllic, if slightly messy, picnic scene resulting in happy children stuffing rice and vegetables into their mouths in silent concentration.
Only one child is without a lunchbox today, and the others have plenty to share. It is part of the culture. Once they are finished, they wash the lunchboxes out at the fountain and put them on a wall to dry before dashing off to burn away some energy in the playground. The Head tells us that this initiative has not only improved concentration in the afternoon, but also improved attendance. This is really encouraging and emboldens us to consider how we might afford to provide a box for all 1750 children in the area that we support.
The insulated boxes cost £3.50 each and, on the evidence of what we saw, it looks a good investment. The schools and the parents have embraced the idea, and there is clearly no need to ask the children. There will, however, be new children joining these schools every year and so we will be looking for further sponsors to enable this. Please consider making a donation.
Just sometimes there is quite a simple solution to a complex problem. We do think, in this case, that the humble lunchbox may have quite a transformative effect on the school experience and the general well-being of the children in this far-flung region of a poor country.