At least five African countries have set up "home grown school feeding" initiatives aimed at improving child nutrition and developing local agricultural markets.
For Kenyan education official Nur Guleid, there is no food like home-grown food. "We have gone out to monitor at the school level. They said they enjoy it [the food] because the food is fresh, they get it when they want it, it is easily accessible and available, and they are very happy about this program," Guleid said.
The Kenyan government gives money to schools in 36 districts reaching nearly 600,000 students. A management committee in each school uses the money to purchase produce directly from farmers within a 50-kilometer radius of the school.
Farmers and school officials are connected through the Ministry of Agriculture's Eradication of Hunger in Kenya program.
Everyday in participating schools, each child receives 150 grams of cereals, most commonly maize, 40 grams of pulses, usually beans, five grams of oil used to cook the food, and salt. Typically, the lunch meal is a stew consisting of maize and beans, called "githeri" in one local language.
Guleid says the program has made a huge impact, especially on the poor. "The children would have not come to school were it not for this food. It takes them to school, it also keeps them in school [and] helps them improve on their performance and also their cognitive abilities," Guleid said.
Kenya is one of five African countries that have an active "home grown school feeding" initiative. Programs are also found in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Mali. Other countries such as South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are also setting up similar initiatives.
In these programs, local farmers supply produce to schools to feed students, with the aim of improving child nutrition and developing local agricultural markets.
The "home grown school feeding" initiatives are supported by a partnership of groups including the World Bank, the World Food Program, the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, and other agricultural, children's and women's groups.
One such partner is the London-based The Partnership for Child Development, which advises governments and organizations on how to coordinate links between farmers and schools.
Partnership for Child Development Home Grown School Feeding Coordinator Kristie Neeser says for many governments procuring food locally is a new and unusual concept.
"Over the years, a lot of it [food for schools] has been external aid coming in from other countries like the U.S. and the U.K. Creating a new understanding about the opportunities for supporting local economic development within the countries has been a shifting of mindset," Neeser said.
When food is procured locally, individual farmers or farmers' cooperatives earn income from selling their produce to the schools.
Kenyan farmer Ruth Kihanga supports her three children by selling her beans and maize to a school near the town of Thika. She also purchases food from other farmers to sell to the school, creating a network of grateful farmers.
"I have a small shop. This shop I use to sell some [cooking] fat, sugar, soap and such things. Those farmers who I buy maize from, then they come to buy some items in my shop," Kihanga said.
But farmers are not the only ones to benefit.
In Nigeria, the government transfers funds to the bank accounts of cooks, who use the money to purchase food from local markets. Each cook prepares food for 50 children.
"This has created nearly 3,000 jobs for these local women who are employed by the program. The community members are involved in the hiring process for the cooks. There is really strong monitoring at the local grassroots level. Every week, each kid is supposed to receive one egg, and they do not receive the egg their parents will call in to the program and say, 'the cook has not provided the egg for the kids this week,'" Neeser said.
The Ivory Coast government, which feeds more than one million schoolchildren each day through its program, gives agricultural inputs to women-farmers' groups. One third of what the women produce goes to the home grown school feeding program.
Food purchased in the program typically consists of local staple crops such as rice, maize, millet, sorghum, as well as local vegetables such as spinach, leafy greens, sweet potatoes.
Most programs supply the schools with one meal a day, either at breakfast or lunchtime.