How school gardens are boosting community nutrition in West Nile
“The school provides the garden, the parents cultivate the land and contribute to the school feeding, students perform better ..."
Behind the Primary Seven classroom at Owilo Primary School, Palyec Central Village in Nebbi, a winding path runs through a football field to a garden of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, iron-rich beans, purple eggplants and green leafy vegetables. The one-acre garden is guarded jealously as it is considered the reason for the students’ good performance among a growing list of other benefits.
Owilo Primary School is one of 132 schools in Nebbi benefiting from a nutrition governance programme under the Development Initiative for Northern Uganda (DINU) that started in 2016. Funded by the European Union , the programme implemented by UNICEF seeks to address the key drivers of nutrition in northern Uganda, a key component of which is dietary diversity. The establishment of school gardens for the production and consumption of a diversity of nutrient-rich foods is a direct response to this challenge. Under this initiative, a school nutrition committee comprising representatives of the school administration, teaching staff and parents is set up and trained in best nutrition and agronomy practices.
The committee is provided with farming inputs and has the responsibility for setting up and managing the school garden, with one section for parents and another for the school. Weekly, parents and students from Primary Four to Seven cultivate the garden and at harvest contribute a significant portion of the produce to the school feeding programme.
“We have developed an ecosystem of nutrition,” David Coothembo, the Head Teacher of Owilo Primary School states. “The school provides the garden, the parents cultivate the land and contribute to the school feeding, students perform better and stay in school for longer, and the cycle continues, ” he adds.
As a result of their direct participation in their children’s education, parents have developed genuine interest both in the garden project and in other school matters and many have also replicated the recommended agronomy practices at home.
The school apportions part of the food from the parents’ garden and all the food from the students’ demonstration garden towards school feeding, to supplement the individual parent contributions. According to the head teacher, “in the past, parents often failed to contribute enough food for the feeding programme, but since we established the school garden, we have a surplus and variety of food.”
In the school kitchen, the cook prepares green vegetables and eggplant obtained from the garden to supplement the beans being prepared for lunch. On the lid of her chopping tray are tomatoes also grown in the school garden. School feeding is compulsory for students in Primary Five to Seven and except for those who stay more than three kilometres away from the school.
Practical student and teacher skilling
The school also utilizes the garden for practical agriculture lessons for the lower classes whereby the students are taught how to plant, weed and harvest crops. From Primary Five to Seven, the students participate in all the gardening, under the supervision of the science teacher. “The garden is our laboratory for agriculture,” Ronald Anyolitho the science teacher notes. During a mid-morning break, Primary Seven pupils can be found in the garden, pulling up grass and weeds. Among them, 13-year-old Mary Rwothumio reports, “I like practising what we learn in the science classes.” She smiles as she adds, “I also like the orange potatoes because they are sweet. My uncle who comes for the parent group got potato vines and planted them at home.”
At the staff quarters, a Primary Four English teacher proudly displays the eggplants, cherry tomatoes, orange and white-fleshed potatoes growing in his kitchen garden, which is the size of two car parking spaces. He consumes the food from his garden and sells the potato vines to the community. He also sent some beans to his family in Arua, for feeding and their own cultivation as he notes that “I also want my family to benefit from the nutrients in the food.”
Following the closure of schools at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the parents cultivated the students’ garden in addition to their own during their weekly gatherings. The school lent the food to the community, with the expectation of repayment upon reopening of schools. When Owilo Primary School reopened finalist classes in October, the gardens had borne their second crop of potatoes, beans and onions.
Improved school performance
The school gardening programme is also impacting school performance at Owilo Primary School. Whereas in the past there were students who obtained the lowest possible grade in the primary leaving examinations, nowadays the lowest grade obtained is in division three.
“We know that this is attributable to the school garden and its impact on school feeding since a well-fed child can concentrate better in class,” the head teacher reports. Parents too have witnessed the impact and several requested the school to enrol children from lower classes onto the feeding programme. Furthermore, the school garden has reduced feeding-related expenditure for the school and also helped generate some income through the sale of excess produce. The same trend is being replicated in hundreds of schools in 15 districts in northern and north -eastern Uganda under the DINU programme.
Despite unfavourable weather patterns, particularly long dry spells that affect agricultural activity, it is hoped that diligent application of recommended practices will still enable the school gardens to thrive and provide much-needed nutrition to school children and their communities.