High school senior Bryce Whitley was too busy raising money for hunger relief to know that lawmakers in Washington were cutting funds that help feed and educate millions of children in the world’s poorest nations.
Ms. Whitley helped kick off the United Nations World Food Program’s campaign this month that asks American schoolchildren to each donate 19 cents a day to feed the world’s hungry. Then, Congress last week passed an omnibus spending bill that significantly cuts the U.S. role in the school part of the program for 2004.
U.N. officials say millions of children in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who must attend school to get their once-a-day meals, could be the ones who suffer.
Ms. Whitley, who goes to school outside Jackson, Miss., doesn’t understand why.
“I’ve learned so much, and I’ve learned that malnutrition is severe, and that even at 17, we can do something about it,” said the senior at Northwest Rankin High School in Brandon, Miss.
Supporters of the U.N.'s school feeding program blame the possible funding shortage in part on national-security concerns. They say it’s understandable that Congress and President Bush may have been distracted in the past year by the war in Iraq and continuing terrorist threats from overseas. They hope funding will be restored in the fiscal 2005 budget.
The U.N. World Food Program fed about 110 million people around the world last year, including 15.6 million children who receive their meals at school. The United States provides money for school feeding programs that is awarded to the U. N. program and other relief agencies.
“This year, we’re in serious trouble because of the deficit” in the federal budget, said Judith Lewis, the U.S.-relations director for the World Food Program in Washington.
A Mississippi native who worked for many years on U.N. relief efforts in Africa, Ms. Lewis agreed to launch the 19-cents-a- day campaign at the school where longtime friend Sandra Grayson teaches and Ms. Whitley is enrolled.
‘A Great Hole’
U.S. funding for the school feeding program began in 2000, when two former senators and presidential nominees, Bob Dole and George McGovern, took up the charge. The bipartisan duo persuaded President Clinton to provide $300 million in discretionary funding for the first year.
The U.N. World Food Program received almost half that $300 million over about two years starting in 2001, while other relief organizations landed the rest, said Jordan Dey, a spokesman for the U.N. food program.
Congress made the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program permanent in 2003, but financed it at only $100 million.
When the international school meals program began, the U.S. General Accounting Office questioned administrative functions that might make it ineffective, raising questions in the minds of some lawmakers. But the concerns were addressed, said Rick Leach, the executive director of Friends of the World Food Program, a Washington-based policy and public-awareness group.
Last week, federal lawmakers approved a tardy spending bill for fiscal 2004 that reduced the school feeding program’s funding to $50 millionthe amount President Bush recommended.
“I like to think we could have done better,” Mr. Leach said. “There is so much support, but still such a great hole in terms of meeting the need.”
The United States does provide farm products and other aid to overall relief efforts beyond the school feeding program. But money for the school program was not merely shifted into other agencies or relief efforts, Mr. Leach said.
The school meals program also encourages learning, fosters family involvement in schools, builds civil rights for girls and women who traditionally haven’t had access to school in some societies, and provides venues for life-saving health care such as AIDS prevention, he said.
“If there was anything close to a silver bullet” to combat world hunger and other problems, Mr. Leach said, “this is it.”
U.N. officials say their work in schools has boosted educational opportunities for children in 70 developing nations, mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They estimate girls’ school attendance, for instance, often more than doubles where school feeding programs exist.
Mr. Leach said he visited the southern African nation of Malawi last year, and saw children attending schools mostly for a meal. Students were learning basic academic skills and better hygiene to prevent the spread of disease, and adults were involved with cooking, serving, and distributing the food.
“With the introduction of food in the schools, they have watched attendance skyrocket,” Mr. Leach said, especially for girls and the substantial numbers of AIDS orphans in that region of the world.
The World Food Program estimates it fed about 280,000 schoolchildren in Afghanistan in 2002—half of them girls who had been barred from schooling under the Taliban government.
“I grew up in Scott County, which is one of the poorest counties in Mississippi, so I know about poverty,” said Ms. Lewis, who has headed U.N. hunger relief efforts in Ethiopia and southern Africa. “But the first time I went to Africa—you can’t even describe it when you see whole villages that have nothing. They don’t have electricity; they don’t have clean water.”
She recalled an emergency relief effort—the type of work that is the primary duty of the U.N. World Food Program, including current relief in Iraq—during a 1990s famine in Ethiopia.
“We were looking at 10 million people who were going to die,” Ms. Lewis said. “They were eating the leaves off little scrub brushes. They would walk kilometer after kilometer to find these little leaves to eat.”
Ed Cooney, the executive director of the private, bipartisan Congressional Hunger Center, located in Washington, was optimistic that the White House would call for restoring at least some funding to the international school meals program for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“It’s my view that there’s really substantial bipartisan support for the Dole-McGovern legislation, and for some set of unknown reasons, it sort of fell through the cracks,” Mr. Cooney said. “I think you’re going to see that corrected in the Bush budget for 2005, which comes out in February.”
The school feeding program has support from both Republicans and Democrats, even if it hasn’t yet translated into more funding.
U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., has pushed for greater funding. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass., co-chairs the Congressional Hunger Center with Ms. Emerson, whose late husband helped lay the groundwork for the center.
Rep. McGovern implored fellow lawmakers to provide full funding for the school meals program during a speech on the House floor last month. “Over the past three years, we have cut funding for the McGovern-Dole school feeding program that is now one-sixth of what it once was,” he said. “This is a disgrace, plain and simple.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the Bush administration has not turned a deaf ear to the plight of impoverished nations. The administration, he said, has advocated increased aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development, stressing economic-development projects to help nations provide for themselves.
Help could also come from the USDA or individual lawmakers, who could seek supplemental funds for the program.
Still, the school feeding program that serves only a few million of the world’s 300 million hungry children, as estimated by the United Nations, was intended to grow, not fight for its life.
‘Anything to Help’
Even as advocates push for increased help for children under the McGovern-Dole program, Mr. Cooney of the Congressional Hunger Center was glad to hear about the separate 19-cents-a-day school fund-raising drive.
“It’s very important that kids become aware of what other kids in the world have to face on a daily basis,” said Mr. Cooney, who believes that humanitarian work can help mend strained relations with some countries.
Ms. Whitley, the high school senior from Mississippi, led the first kickoff event for the school fund- raising drive. U.N. officials will make appearances at other schools this year to spread the word about world hunger and the international body’s work to relieve it. A Web site where educators can find details of the campaign can be accessed through www.wfp.org.
Ms. Whitley interned at Ms. Lewis’ Washington office, learning about the U.N. World Food Program. Then the student organized a school assembly, and charged 19 cents admission. She displayed nutritious biscuits and other foods the program offers schoolchildren overseas. And she put together a letter-writing campaign for students to urge Congress to put more money into the international meals program.
She even threw an after- hours dance for her sister’s middle school to spread awareness among younger children.
Ms. Grayson, the Northwest Rankin High teacher, said she’s been impressed with how students at the school have reacted to Ms. Whitley’s efforts.
“It has been amazing,” Ms. Grayson said. “Each day, in each class, somebody has asked some question about what’s going on and what it’s all about— how can we do anything to help?”
Coverage of cultural under- standing and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as U.S. Cuts Food Aid For Schools Abroad