Incorporating Nutrition into the Core Child Program

Lately, the education community has been abuzz with discussions about defining healthy school food options. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act calls for healthier school lunch options and offers guidelines for implementation. However, lobbying groups have been pressuring Congress to block reforms that would limit the servings of certain foods like potatoes, and others outlined in that document. Others have been arguing over what portion of tomato paste in pizza should be considered a serving of a vegetable.

Here in Nablus, we have similar concerns over the kind of foods that children are choosing to eat. Just like in America, children here can buy junk food for very low prices. However, of more pressing concern is the number of children who are simply not eating enough food. The World Food Programme 2010 Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey of the occupied Palestinian territories estimates that 1.43 million people in Palestine are food insecure. The WFP uses the term “food insecure” to define households where both income and consumption are less than $5.1 a day or where households show decreases in both food and non-food expenditures.

The WFP survey also reads, “In the West Bank, refugee households – particularly those living in refugee camps – have consistently had the highest prevalence of food insecurity and vulnerability to food insecurity.” Over 1/3 of refugee camp households are food insecure. Moreover, only a mere 29% of the people in the refugee camps are food secure, meaning that they their income and consumption are both more than $6 per day and that their households show no decrease in expenditures. This can be compared with 41% of those in the West Bank who are considered food secure.

TYO is aware that the children it serves are not eating healthy food nor eating enough of it. Suhad, TYO’s Psychosocial Program Manager, estimates that about 70% of the children who come to TYO eat their first meal of the day at TYO. This estimate is based upon conversations between teachers and students, conversations with parents, and home visits. Therefore, TYO has always provided the children in its Core Child Program with a healthy snack. The 4-5 year olds receive a glass of freshly squeezed juice (no sugar added), a piece of fruit or a vegetable, and hummus or bread with olive oil every day. The 6-8 year olds in the afternoon programs have historically received a similar snack.

Recently, TYO has decided to provide our children with a more substantial meal. Within the past two weeks, TYO has started feeding its children in its afternoon Core Child Program a bowl of homemade lentil or bean soup, bread, and a glass of fruit juice. This way, we can ensure that children are getting vitamins, protein, and carbohydrates every day they come to TYO.

In general, Suhad said that she has seen marked differences in the behavior of the children in the Core Child Program within the past few weeks. She believes that offering children meals has been one of the drivers of those changes. She says that the anxiety in the classrooms has decreased and that children seem to be less impulsive. When they line up, they don’t push each other as much and they are not raising their voices as much either. Jawad, one of TYO’s Core Child Program teachers, said that the children used to say, “I’m still hungry,” and “I need more” after finishing their snacks. Now, after licking their bowls of soup dry, they say they are full. Jawad also mentioned how the level of concentration in the classroom noticeably improves after the children have eaten something substantial.

Not only does TYO provide a healthy meal, but it also incorporates snack time into its curriculum. The Core Child Program teachers discuss healthy eating habits with the children and explain why they are important. That way, we not only provide children with healthier options, but we also teach them to choose healthier foods when outside of TYO. However, we realize that we also need to teach mothers and fathers the importance of healthy eating in order to change the eating patterns of the entire household. We have already started to empower some mothers through lectures in the Women’s Group on healthy eating and other classes on nutrition led by the international interns. We look forward to expanding our programming to reach more children and households to ensure a healthier future for our children here in Nablus.