Little Vishnu is ready to learn and thrive!
Pre-school meal programmes in Sri Lanka ensure young children’s continued access to education and nutrition amidst economic crisis
5-year-old Vishnu is happy to be back at his humble village preschool in Valachchenai, in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Thanks to the mid-day meal provided by the preschool, his attitude towards schooling is positive; he is energetic and is now eager to take part in preschool activities.
"I did not enjoy coming to school before. I was not able to concentrate on my studies and extracurricular activities, as I was always hungry. There was no proper breakfast at home,” Vishnu says.
“My father has left us. My mother and I live with my aunt. My mother does not work. She helps aunt take care of the house and children.”
His mother, Pirasanthini (24), works tirelessly to ensure her son has access to education. “Since my husband left us, it has been a challenge to make ends meet. With the economic crisis it has become worse. I moved in with my sister. Here I have a roof over my head, and I get two meals per day.”
The Valachchenai community mainly depends on agriculture and fishing. In their rural setting they have limited access to basic services such as health and transport. Their vulnerabilities are now compounded by the economic crisis Sri Lanka is faced with since early 2022.
"These children and their families were not just economically poor but also unaware of the nutritional requirements of children," explains Kavitha (45), a teacher at the pre-school Vishnu attends. "As I am from this neighbourhood, I understand the issues in our communities and the deprivation of our children, which are further worsened by the ongoing economic crises.”
As families across the country grapple with the harsh realities of economic hardships, the education, health and overall wellbeing of children are on the edge. As a result, children are at a higher risk of growth and learning impediments and various forms of undernourishment – especially the younger children as they run the risk of being deprived of even the basic nutritional requirements critical for their early years.
As a response, UNICEF collaborated with the local authorities of eight most disadvantaged districts to support nutrition sensitive meal programmes at preschool level. The programme commenced in September 2022 and aims to ensure young children’s continued access to nutrition and education.
To-date the pre-school meal programme has reached over 37,000 children across 1500-plus resource-poor pre-schools and day-care centres in the eight districts. Funding from UNICEF Australia supports the effort in seven out of the eight districts.
“The morning meal is truly beneficial for the children. Being a teacher here, I am happy for this opportunity for my children to turn their lives around,” adds Kavitha.
In a beautiful display of communal solidarity and commitment towards the well-being of their young, dedicated mothers of the students have taken on the responsibility of supporting the preschool in preparing and serving the meals.
"A committee comprising mothers has been formed to oversee the overall meal program. We have assigned responsibilities among mothers to cook meals for children in the school, along with growing vegetables in the school premises and in their homes to ensure timely and quality supply of nutritious ingredients. The support the mothers provided through sourcing, preparing and serving food ensures the teachers remain focused on teaching and learning process. This also gives us a sense of ownership and makes the programme sustainable.” explains Mahela (27), a member of the committee.
"The meal programme has brought the community together. Children are now getting a nutritious meal, lessening the burden on the families. Due to the meal program, the school attendance of children has remained consistent, and they contribute proactively to curricular and extracurricular activities,"
Takaho Fukami, Chief of Education, UNICEF Sri Lanka states, “the support from UNICEF Australia is crucial and much appreciated. The nutrition-sensitive preschool meal programme not only helps address the immediate humanitarian needs of vulnerable children, but also brings about lasting impacts for young children at their critical life cycle stage of early childhood when solid foundation must be laid for life-long learning and holistic development. The humanitarian needs continue in Sri Lanka and for the continuation and scaling-up of this important programme there remains a dire need for greater resource mobilisation as well. This is an essential support that UNICEF is engaged in as a trusted partner of the government and school communities, whose positive impact will be felt by generations to come.”