ADAMA, Ethiopia — It’s time for lunch at Remember the Poorest Community School, about 60 miles south of Addis Ababa. Students are digging into the pasta and buns on their plates.
For some of these children, ages 4 to 7, lunch will be their main daily meal.
Ethiopia is enduring its worst drought in 30 years. The price of food has soared, and families are struggling to feed their children.
Mennonite Central Committee is responding to that need with a free, hot-lunch program for about 225 students. The first meals were served in May. The program is in addition to MCC’s ongoing work with the local organization Remember the Poorest Community. Since 2005, MCC and RPC have provided free education at the school.
Cath Woolner, an MCC representative in Ethiopia from Kitchener, Ont., said children come from the most vulnerable families in the region, where household income is less than about $20 a month. Parents earn a living by selling small items such as candy or vegetables or taking manual labor or cleaning jobs. Some get income through begging or working in the sex trade.
“We hear stories about what these children would be doing if they didn’t come to this school,” Woolner said. “They would be begging alongside their parents or staying alone in the family’s plastic tarp house while their parents are away working.”
Drought is putting even more pressure on families. Recently, over a period of only a few months, the cost of teff (used to make the traditional Ethiopian bread, injera) jumped by 25 percent. The schoolmaster, Mengistu Dejene, said families cannot afford these higher prices, and many are reducing the food they buy.
“Some students were only coming to school a few days a week, and when they came they didn’t bring a lunch,” he said. “They were hungry and tired, and they got sick. It is hard for them to learn when they have these problems.”
When these children saw others with lunches, they were sad and cried, snatched food from their classmates or asked permission to go home. Sometimes teachers and other students shared their food.
Rising food prices have had another consequence — the exodus of families from Adama. To avoid paying rent and other expenses, families are moving in with relatives in other regions.
The dropout rate at the school has increased significantly. Between September and March, about 20 students left, compared to a dropout rate of five to eight students in past school years.
Dejene and Woolner are hoping the hot lunch program will reverse that trend.
Woolner said if children have a meal at school they will be more attentive and engaged in learning. And the pressure on families to leave Adama will decline.
“This will mean they can stay in school,” she said. “They will be able to learn, and that will help them when they get to primary school, and beyond that.”