Tetra Laval Food for Development Senior Project Manager Markus Huet explains how school feeding programmes are improving children’s health while strengthening local economies worldwide.
School feeding programmes provide a social safety net for millions of children every year. But more than that, they are also helping to strengthen the food value chain in developing countries, creating demand for locally-produced food and stimulating economic development.
Tetra Pak has supported school feeding programmes for over 50 years. “I think that says a lot about the depth of our commitment to sustainability,” says Senior Project Manager Markus Huet, a former country director for three US NGOs: Land O’Lakes International Development, American Refugee Committee and United Methodist Committee on Relief. “We can see the positive impact of these programmes in so many different ways.”
Markus joined Tetra Laval Food for Development in 2004 to support existing feeding programmes and help mobilise stakeholders in countries where there is unmet demand. To date he has worked in 36 countries in support of programming across Africa, Asia, central and south America and the Middle East. The process is different each time, and he admits it can be challenging. “Working with so many different stakeholders you have to be ready to compromise,” he says. “But proper preparation is key, as is good communication from the start.”
A current priority is a school milk programme in Myanmar, which is in its third year and provides milk to over 52,000 children. Markus describes it as a textbook example: “I’ve been able to draw on all my lessons learned from providing technical support to school feeding programmes over the years to set it up exactly as I want. Schools need to understand from the start what’s involved. They need to prepare a proper storeroom, nominate a main contact and commit to managing regular tasks like unloading delivery trucks.”
“In Vietnam, malnutrition rates have fallen from over 15% to less than 4% in three years, and school attendance is rising at double the rate before the programme began”
A planned approach to implementation ensures smooth running – and supports the gathering of robust data. “To measure the impact on children, we need to know the state of their health before the programme starts, and compare their progress with that of children who are not part of the programme,” Markus explains. “A key part of my ongoing technical support role is to ensure that school personnel are keeping proper records.”
In Myanmar, impact is now being formally evaluated by a team of external experts. “The informal feedback we’ve gathered is very positive, so we’re looking forward to the findings,” says Markus. “Elsewhere, programmes have delivered very significant benefits – in Vietnam, for example, malnutrition rates have fallen from over 15% to less than 4% in three years, and school attendance is rising at double the rate before the programme began.
“Creating a sense of ownership is the foundation of sustainability”
Success can be measured in many ways: through improved health and better performance at school, and by the creation of more sustainable food value chains involving locally produced and processed food. But there is another indicator that Markus believes is key: community involvement. “You need to get communities involved in the practicalities from the start,” he says. “Then later we can move on to asking them to make a more significant contribution. That may include ‘in kind’ support or even a financial contribution. Creating a sense of ownership is the foundation of sustainability.”
As well as supporting the programme in Myanmar, Markus is working with customer Alaskan Milk Corp to set up a new programme in the Philippines, and supporting a pilot programme in Chile. He is also working with the government of Malaysia, where he currently lives, to provide ongoing technical support to the programme there.
There’s no doubt his is a challenging and demanding role – but one that also brings huge rewards. “When I see how excited the children are to be drinking their milk or juice, or when I look at the data and see that attendance is up 10%, or when communities increase their support to a programme, it’s very gratifying,” he says. “That really is what makes it all worthwhile.”