HATUTAN: Communities empowered through school meals program

by Alex Ray, for Care International (2020)

Eight o’clock in the morning Monday to Saturday is ‘rush hour’ in Timor-Leste’s Liquica municipality, when the area’s remote muddy roads are dotted with children grouped in camaraderie, walking long distances to school.

For 265 of them, aged 5-12, their trip to Faulara primary school takes up to two hours each way, with regular river crossings in wet-season.

Funding and administration issues mean children often take this journey without the guarantee of a nutritious meal at school. Across Timor-Leste around 50% of children suffer from malnutrition, severely impacting their energy and learning capacity.

The government has made efforts to address this with a school feeding program, but during the first three months of the school year, the required budget transfers are unavailable for distribution by local authorities and funds cannot reach the schools.

Families in Timor-Leste’s rural districts are often dependent on subsistence agriculture and children lucky enough to be able to buy snacks can usually only afford cheap and nutrient-poor dry noodles or fried bread.

The 2020 school year however, started differently for 90,000 pre-primary and primary school children in 442 schools in four municipalities – Ainaro, Ermera, Liquica and Manatuto.

The ‘HATUTAN’ program – led by CARE International – partnered with the Ministry of Education and local government to provide school meals for every school day in the first trimester.

The United States Department of Agriculture donated three basic food commodities: fortified rice, pinto beans and cooking oil, to cover the funding-access gap at the start of the year.

Though simple, school meals are linked to critical issues such as malnutrition, basic educational outcomes, hygiene and sanitation, community cohesion and gender equality.

The donated food helped to galvanize the community’s contributions to build or repair simple kitchens and secure places for food storage. The joint effort for the school feeding program led to other areas of collaboration between the schools and local communities.

This enabled CARE International, WaterAid and Mercy Corps – who implement the $26 million United States Department of Agriculture program – to introduce a variety of school and community support initiatives. These include teacher and school administrator training; focused efforts to improve Tetum literacy in primary schools; improving school hygiene; and increasing food production by local farmers.

Community ownership and action is key for the sustainability of such initiatives, as parents embrace the school as their own and not solely a government responsibility.

Correspondingly, HATUTAN supported the re-activation of school parent-teacher associations (PTAs) as the primary drivers of action. Renewed PTA involvement has seen parents, teachers and children contribute to initiatives as a community rather than as passive recipients of aid.

In addition to scarce resources, many schools lacked kitchens or adequate food storage facilities to provide meals.

This key requirement was one of the first challenges parents and teachers came together to solve, with guidance from HATUTAN on the required standards. The school also built tippy-taps – with simple water bottle and lever mechanisms – with from community resources to improve hand washing.

“Every semester we hold a meeting to review the children’s participation in the learning process and discuss the school activities and its needs,” said Gaspar de Jesus da Silva (60) President of the Faulara PTA.

Whether through small per-child cash donations or donations of material and time, each family adds what they can to further improve the school meals and facilities.

“We also help with a variety of vegetables. If materials run short, teachers encourage the children to bring the firewood or vegetables they have at home,” said da Silva, adding “We are thinking of adding another cook for the meals – paid by the parents. Each parent will give 25 cents per month.”

When CARE visited, children arrived at morning assembly enthusiastically carrying sticks – often taller than them as a contribution to fuelwood – and taro plants for the school’s kitchen garden. Saturday’s half-day of extra-curricular activities offers teachers and students a chance to put in extra work on their priority areas.

Teachers and students plant taro in the Faulara primary school kitchen garden. Photo: Alex Ray / (c) Care 2020

Older students at Faulara spent the day learning carpentry through building a dining hall table for the school and planting the garden. For younger students, the time is critical for extra literacy work in the national language, Tetum.

Teachers are also benefiting from HATUTAN’s literacy support programs “This training can change our method of teaching. We can learn a little from this training to teach our students,” said Lidia Brites Da Costa (33) who has taught for 5 years, and currently has a class of 47 third grade students.

Moises da Silva Gomes, (35) has been the coordinator of Ensino Bascio Faulara since 2014. He said the main challenge the school faces is students not graduating and repeating years at school – a problem he feels is closely related to children’s attendance and enthusiasm in class.

“The main benefits of HATUTAN for us and the children, are that children become enthusiastic and are encouraged to learn. I see change by looking at this year’s graduation rate. Last year around 7 children did not graduate. But we are seeing enthusiasm for learning growing … the program seems to be making children more active,” Gomes said.

Despite the long walk and hours spent planting, building and learning at school, the children of Faulara school were bright eyed and glowing.

Grinning sixth grader Carlito Gomes (13) said he “I really like the program meals. It encourages me to go to school and study. Before [HATUTAN], I had to eat enough food from home.”

Fifth-grader Melania Martinha Da Costa (11) has five brothers and sisters and walks an hour to and from school each day and this week brought firewood and some vegetables to school. “My parents prepared it for me at home,” she said adding “the school feeding program helped us, we are eager to learn, and are attentive.”

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