When it comes to learning, knowledge is best absorbed on a full stomach.
That’s what Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) staff in Cambodia observed recently. So they incorporated lunch into their community-run kindergarten program, and the results have been tremendous.
The kindergarten program started last year through a partnership between CRWRC-Cambodia and the Mission Alliance of Norway. The Mission Alliance wanted to help children and selected Cambodia, a country where nearly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and more than one-fourth of adults are illiterate.
Kindergarten students enjoy a tasty stew of eggs, chicken, and vegetables donated by families in their community.
The Cambodian communities in which CRWRC works have government-run primary and secondary schools, but nothing for preschoolers and kindergartners. As it partnered with the existing schools, CRWRC saw the need to get children learning at an earlier age.
“Parents were quick to express their desire that their children have a good start on their education,” said Rick deGraaf, CRWRC-Cambodia country consultant. “A pleasant and positive kindergarten experience is a key element to lifelong learning.”
With Mission Alliance support, CRWRC worked with villages to build nine kindergarten buildings. Community councils contributed land on which to build the schools. They also suggested community members who could be trained to become teachers.
Once the schools were completed in December 2010, the school year began with about 25 students in each school. Parents and other members of the community contribute to the teachers’ salaries and also toward improving the playgrounds and building fences for security.
“As classes started, the kindergarten teachers noted that a significant number of children had a difficult time concentrating and participating in learning activities that are part of the curriculum we offer,” deGraaf reported.
“What we discovered was that some of the children came to school without breakfast, and others arrived having eaten only a very light breakfast. We also noticed that some would snack on foods of very little nutritional value.”
Based on those observations, CRWRC studied the nutrition situation more closely.
“We decided that we should provide a nutritious meal to children while they are at school; that way we would know they were getting the nutrition they need,” said deGraaf.
“But we didn’t want to just give a handout to one child in a family. It’s important to us that families learn about the importance of good nutrition and also be able to provide it to their children themselves.
“Since many children are under the care of grandmothers while their parents work, we connected with these grandmothers and taught them to make a healthy stew that we could feed to the children at least twice a week.”
The Parent Teacher Association of each school collected eggs, chicken, and vegetables from families in the community. These were cooked with a little rice and some flavoring.
After just two weeks, the kindergarten teachers noticed a marked improvement in students’ energy levels and class participation.
“I had the privilege of being at a kindergarten on one of the days when the meal supplement was served,” deGraaf said. “When I arrived, the children wanted to be sure that I got some stew too. So I took a small helping and ate with them. I have to admit, it did taste pretty good.”
CRWRC originally worried that the lunch program might discontinue once CRWRC stopped supporting it, but there is no longer concern about that happening.
“Now that the community has tasted this success, I doubt they would abandon the project,” deGraaf said. “In fact, we are running into challenges of the opposite nature: parents from surrounding communities now want their children to attend as well.”