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 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.
The Head told us that this initiative has not only improved concentration in the afternoon, but also improved attendance. This was really encouraging and we started a fundraising campaign to provide all children in the area that we support with a lunch box.
After the initial pilot and together with some generous donors, we were able to provide all 2600 pupils in our schools with a lunch box. Teachers reported higher attendance figures as children were able to concentrate on their lessons all day and stopped leaving school early in the afternoons because they no longer felt hungry. The boxes were purchased at a cost of £3.50 each but were worth every penny as they made a huge difference to the life of the school. Parents also enthusiastically got on board and could see the benefits of the scheme for themselves.
The project continued doing well, despite Covid-19 school closure interruptions. You can imagine our disappointment when we saw the boxes lying empty on the shelves on our recent visit to schools in November 2022. Why this change? The Nepalese Government had seen the positive impact the lunchbox had on educational outcomes and have now chosen to adopt their own version of lunch provision across the country.
The Government now provide all schools with government funding in order to supply each child from Grades 1 – 6 with a hot lunch supplied from a nearby lodge. Schools that are not in close proximity to a lodge give the money to the parents to provide the lunch. We have been told the initiative will shortly be extended to Grades 7 and 8 and possibly beyond.
Our aim with the lunchbox project was to give the children in our thirty five schools a better chance in life. We are proud to say that every child in Nepal, below the age of fourteen, now receives a meal at lunchtime thus increasing their learning potential. We are not saying that Himalayan Trust UK can take all the credit for this shift in government policy but it is encouraging to see that they take an interest in our work and, perhaps, come up with their own solutions.
Just sometimes there is quite a simple solution to a complex problem. We do think, in this case, that the humble lunchbox may have had 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.