YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A Catholic charity devoted to feeding hungry children recently resumed distributing free meals to school children in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a bitter civil war, on top of climate change and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, has produced one of the world’s most acute food shortages.

According to UNICEF, more than 3.5 million children do not have access to school due to the impacts of conflict and climate shocks across Ethiopia, but the Tigray region has been disproportionately affected: 1.7 million school-age children out of an estimated 2.3 million were denied access to education for three academic years, with the war having destroyed 88 percent of school infrastructure.

The violence forced “Mary’s Meals,” which provides meals to more than 2.4 million children every school day in 18 countries, to temporarily halt operations in Tigray, but now it is back. Operating in Ethiopia since 2017, Mary’s Meals and its in-country partner, the Daughters of Charity, provided meals to a total of 24,320 children, ages 6-12, across 36 schools before the outbreak of the fighting in 2020.

“The communities are determined to reopen the schools, even if children are sitting on bare floors and the wind is whistling in through the damaged roofs and walls,” said Alex Keay, Mary’s Meals’ Director of Program Affiliates and Partners.

Keay visited Tigray recently and spoke exclusively to Crux about the program restart. The following are excerpts of the interview.

Crux: What is the connection between providing food for kids and their education?

Keay: Hunger and access to food is often a barrier to education for many. By providing a meal to a child in their place of education, we are encouraging the child into the classroom, where they can gain an education and better opportunities for the future. The meal gives them energy that helps them concentrate and participate in class.

How did the twin effects of COVID 19 and war affect your capacity to provide meals to children and how did that in turn play out for their education?

Schools were closed, first by COVID-19. Then, just as they were preparing to reopen in November 2020, the conflict started, and those schools haven’t been able to reopen until the last few weeks. Many of the communities that previously received Mary’s Meals have been seriously impacted by the conflict. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes, and there is extensive damage to infrastructure, including schools, as soldiers passed through these communities leaving a trail of destruction.

Many of those who fled made their way to makeshift camps, often in schools, in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. As the conflict raged on, communications, banking and availability of food became very limited. Mary’s Meals worked through its partners, the Daughters of Charity, and switched to feeding many of those displaced from their homes to the camps as they had limited access to food otherwise. Even this became challenging as it became difficult for our partner to access funds supporting the program and availability of food became scarce.

There are still many thousands of people in those camps in Mekelle as not all areas of Tigray are safe for people to return to, and in cases where those camps are in schools, it means that the schools are unable to reopen while families eat, sleep and take shelter in the cramped classroom spaces.

In the areas where Mary’s Meals was operating before the conflict, people are able to return, and schools are starting to reopen.

How far have you gone, and how far do you intend to go?

In the areas of Tigray where Mary’s Meals operates, schools have really only started to open in the last two to three months and not all are yet open. Prior to those schools reopening, Mary’s Meals had been carrying out emergency community distributions that targeted the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community with monthly food parcels that included flour, lentils and oil. Many of those families include children who would have been receiving Mary’s Meals had the schools been open.

Almost all the schools are reporting some form of damage or loss from the conflict. In many cases, all the school materials and furniture have been destroyed or looted, classrooms have been shelled or burnt out and school playgrounds are littered with broken glass and bullet casings. But the communities are determined to reopen the schools even if children are sitting on bare floors and the wind is whistling in through the damaged roofs and walls.

Those schools that have been able to open are now receiving school feeding from Mary’s Meals. Currently, this is in the form of high-energy biscuits and hot tea, but as missing school kitchen equipment is replaced, and food availability increases, the program will revert to the normal hot nutritious meal we provided before March 2020.

Currently, we’re reaching over 10,000 children in 14 schools but expect to ramp that up to over 30,000 children in 45 schools in the coming months. There is, of course, likely to be significant need beyond that, but any further program growth to reach more children will depend on resources and the generosity of our amazing supporters.

What obstacles are you facing?

Infrastructure at the schools is still in poor shape following the conflict. As mentioned above, many of the schools have been damaged and almost all the school feeding equipment and infrastructure is damaged or looted. It will take time and funds to source and procure all the necessary equipment to get the school kitchens fully operational again.

Food availability and costs are significant challenges. There is still limited availability of food in Tigray as the flow of goods and services into the region is strictly controlled and local agriculture activity starts to gradually resume. Food prices have gone up significantly in the past two years both from global pressures as well as local supply issues and decimation of local agriculture production; crops were torched, livestock slaughtered, and stores looted.

The communities here are determined and committed to get their schools back up and running, they are very clear in communicating the critical role that school feeding plays in that, and are anxious for Mary’s Meals to resume feeding as soon as possible.