SÃO TOMÉ - At the de Almeirim school on the outskirts of São Tomé town, children run out of their classrooms, plastic plates in hand.
“When it gets close to the time to eat, the children start looking out the window,” said the school’s headmistress Theresa de Ceila Pramos. “Sometimes, they even start to make noise with their plates as they wait.”
WFP provides the base of the meals, delivering the food to schools every three months. In the school’s store rooms are sacks of WFP rice, salt, sugar and containers of palm oil fortified with Vitamin A and D. In the corner stands a small shelf, where fresh produce is stored - today, mainly squash.
Though food grows easily in São Tomé and Príncipe, where the landscape is a vibrant green and the climate akin to a greenhouse, many children are not getting the nutrients they need.
The rate of stunting, measured by a low height to age ratio and a result of moderate acute malnutrition, is relatively high at 39%.
“Many children are not eating enough food and the food they eat is the same every day – some fish with boiled or fried plantains,” said Officer in Charge of WFP São Tomé and Príncipe, Domingos Cunha.
WFP has supported schools to establish gardens that produce fresh vegetables to complement the school meals. The De Almeirim school has two gardens, tended by the teachers and students: one for the children who attend the morning section of the school day, the other for the afternoon children.
The produce from the gardens – including local leafy greens, cabbage, green beans, garlic, onions – makes the school meals tastier and more nutritious for the children.
To further increase the amount of vegetables in the meals, the school asks parents to contribute about 50 cents a month.
“Sadly, many children do not manage to bring in this small amount,” said Headmistress Pramos.
In addition to the obvious nutrition benefits, the meals keep children going to school. In São Tomé and Príncipe, school drop-out rates are high: less than half of the students who enter the first grade reach sixth grade.
“There are children in this school who come just for the food and who arrive at school having not eaten breakfast,” said Headmistress Pramos. “If we stopped serving the meals, many wouldn’t come.”
One young girl, Leandra, 8, says that her favourite meal is cachupa, a typically Cape Verdian dish of stewed maize meal and beans. She said her favourite class is mathematics because she enjoys the calculations.
“School meals should be there forever,” she said. “I like eating before class.”