06/29/2012 01:56 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

During Senegal's School Recess, a Lesson in Malnutrition

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

The end of the school year could mean the start of the malnutrition season for many children in Senegal as a result of the devastating drought that is sweeping through West Africa.

Matam, one of the three provinces of Senegal hardest hit by drought and crop failures in the 2011-12 growing season, has had significant advances in childhood nutrition.

With the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Counterpart International organized a school-based program that combined short-term commodity donations with long-term community-run solutions, including school gardens and behavioral change activities.

The success of school-based feeding programs even in relatively good times can be dramatic. It's not just that they can erase malnutrition, they help reduce illiteracy. Well-fed children do better in school and miss fewer days.

Within the Matam program's first 18 months, participating schools experienced a 25 percent increase in enrollment.

"That's when we knew that we were doing something right," says Josephine Trenchard, Counterpart's country director for Senegal.

That sort of success has prompted Senegal's Ministry of Education to begin funding school feeding programs of its own.

Summer's Short Supply

When the school year ends in late June, many children will lose the food security provided by the daily school lunch. For many kids, this has been their lifeline, since the drought has caused families to lose their livestock and livelihoods.

Gabriela Kliewer, a Counterpart program officer who oversees the Matam program, says the schools will distribute "every gram" of the commodities they have left to help the children get through the summer. Nonetheless, families are "very eager" to see the new school year arrive in October, she says.

The USDA-supported Food for Education program provides cereals, protein and oil for school lunches. In the coming year, for instance, Counterpart will distribute bulgur, lentils and vegetable oil to 115 primary schools and 41 preschools in Matam.

Bulgur, lentils and oil are a start. The program is designed to replace the donated commodities with locally grown produce, which are bulwarks of Counterpart's school feeding program.

Parent volunteers trained by Counterpart plant the seeds, water and then harvest the results. In the past three years, they have generated more than 12,700 pounds of produce for the children, including onions, cabbage, okra, corn, lettuce, carrots, hibiscus, tomatoes, eggplant, turnips, black-eyed peas and mint. Parent volunteers also cook the meals.

The parent groups at some of the schools "still need support and technical assistance," Kliewer says. In other schools, "we already did a lot of training and capacity building. They are able to manage."

Families, school officials and Counterpart are looking at expanding their capacity to feed children with poultry operations.

Owning the Programs

Trenchard says the success of the Matam program depends on the leading role that parents, school administrators and community leaders take.

"They're involved in a program every step of the way, from the designing to implementation," she says. "We make sure that they're on board and that they own the programs."

The programs help build the communities' capacity so that they can continue feeding their children nutritious meals at school long after Counterpart and the USDA are gone. The children's improved nutritional condition makes them more able to weather the lean season during the long months between school years.

Go to for a video on Counterpart's Food for Education program in Matam.