In Ethiopia, enrollment rates and access to education have significantly increased on a national scale. Nonetheless, school enrollment and attendance rates in pastoral areas of the country are still significantly below the target level due to knowledge gaps, food shortages, long travel times to school, and inadequate improvements to the school environment.

Studies show that school meals significantly impact beneficiary children’s education status by increasing school enrollment and attendance, decreasing dropout rates, and improving cognitive abilities and learning achievements.

Understanding the situations in these underserved communities, Hailemariam & Roman Foundation (HRF) is supporting the schools with School Meals Program (SMP) in the pastoral area of South Omo Zone in partnership with the China Foundation for Rural Development (CFRD). In addition, HRF advocates, trains teachers, provides school materials, and creates awareness in the community on the benefits of education – especially on girls’ education, gender equality, and the negative effects of harmful practices and makes calls to local administration, including community leaders to take bold actions in stopping the taking & giving of huge dowry for marriage as it underpins the underlying sociocultural values that marginalize women and perpetuate gender inequality in these areas.

In the two woredas (Bena Tsemay and Hamer) of South Omo Zone, HRF has been supporting five schools so far.  Last year, alone HRF in partnership with CFRD has provided school meals for 2376 (1196 boys and 1180 girls) students. More than 2400 (49% girls) students are now accessing school meals and regularly attending their school in five schools of the two woredas.

Parents of the students during the Focus Group Discussion (FGD) expressed, “In a pastoral community setting where drought and shortage of food are common phenomena, sending children to a school in which school meals are served provides a better opportunity for schooling. As a result, families are motivated to send their children to school. The school meal program helps the children to go to school regularly and supports the family indirectly.”

Mr. Seyid Umer, a father of five children in Turmi City Administration in South Omo Zone, teaches two children at Turmi primary school where school meals are being served. He said,“ Thanks to Hailemariam & Roman Foundation, I am very pleased with the school meal program, it provides all students of our community, including my children free meals in the school, and the students also received school bags and learning materials from the foundation for free last year.”

He also added, “Most of the pastoral parents in our area who did not send their children to school, started sending their children now due to the school meals program. Since the school meal program avoids hunger, the parents are happy to send children to school feeding as well as for learning. The students are happy and motivated to go to school regularly”.

Dagim Fekadu, 15 years old, grade 8 student in Key Afer Primary school, explained the importance of the School meal program in reducing hunger, improving regular school attendance, and increasing attentiveness of students in school. He said, “We rush to go to school when we wake up in the morning, because we get our enjoyable breakfast in school. The food is good and all the students are very happy to eat. For me, it increased my attentiveness in school and cut my hunger. Similarly, almost all of my class mates reduced absenteeism due to the meal in the school and they come to school on time.”

Similarly, a grade seven student, Banteayehu Zerihun, who learns at Key Afer primary school, said, “The school meal program helps us to attend our class with a comfortable mind. Before the start of the school meal program in the school, we did not like to go to school because we travel far and our parents could not afford sufficient food to take to school.  Now, we have free meals at school and that made us relax and focus on schooling than thinking about getting food.”

A grade 6 student, Terefuwa Mekonnen, in Dimeka Primary school, said,” Our communities experience drought frequently and thus, we experience hunger. In the previous time when there was no food in school, some students did not regularly attend school. The school-meal program is an incentive for us to attend school because late enrollment and poor attendance are common among us for food-related and other reasons, especially among girls.  Most girls drop out of school and get married. We are currently very grateful to HRF because of their support our parents encourage us to learn, we have adequate food for breakfast and lunch, and we frequently attend school. We hope our parents will not force us to drop out of school for reasons of food shortage and others from now on.”

Mrs, Yisalemush Shitu, the principal of Key Afer Primary School in Bena Tsemay Woreda, South Omo Zone, said “We thank HRF and CFRD for the program; provision of meals at school promoted our registration commencement of the academic year and boosted enrollment of students.  The number of students increased from 658 to 846 in this academic year.  Currently, all our students are happy to attend and our teachers are very happy to teach motivated students. The progress of school attendance and attentiveness of students indicates that we will achieve a decreased school dropout rates and improved academic performance of students”.

Mr. Endashaw Solomon, Turmi Primary school’s principal, said, “In our context, most of the pastoral community members are unable to provide adequate food for their children and send children with school take-foods. Besides, children often walk long distances to school and they arrive to school with weak and hungry feelings, and then they learn with empty stomach in classrooms. When the students are not well motivated and don’t have good attentiveness due to the hungry situations, the teaching-learning process cannot be effective”.

“School meals program play an important role in the lives of children in our school, their families and the school situation also. From first semester record, we learned that the program has contributed to increased parents’ motivation to send their children to a school that did not send before, increased school enrollment, attendance and retention of students. Teachers observed improved students’ attention and focus on the lessons and their studies.”  For instance: We recorded a 10% increment on school enrollment in this year and all of 589 registered/enrolled students have been regularly attending their school for the last five months.” He added.

Trained mothers prepare locally known nutritious foods in our school, so we do not worry about students’ palates and food hygiene issues. The program created job opportunities for poor mothers in addition to the students benefiting from the school meal. “Representing the community, I would like to say thank you for what HRF and China Foundation for Rural Development (CFRD) have been doing in schools and other development works in our community.” Mr. Endashaw concludes.

The Smiling Children School Meals program of HRF has been supporting more than 25 poor mothers to secure jobs and earn income through preparing local foods for more than 2400 pastoral community children in five schools so far.

Finally, as evidenced in the aforementioned witnesses, more than 2400 students are accessing adequate food in their school, improved their attentiveness, focus, and regularity of attendance, which is expected to improve the academic performance, increase school enrollment with remarkable rates, and enabled more than 25 poor women to secure job and earn income.

Hailemariam & Roman Foundation

February 2023, Addis Ababa