The day starts early at Grace Community School in Torit, Eastern Equatoria Region, South Sudan. At 6:30 a.m., long before the students arrive, the teachers and chefs rush around getting ready for the day.
In the school kitchen, a fire is lit to prepare for lunch. Although it is still early, grains and pulses will slowly cook through the morning as chefs stir huge pots containing enough for 403 lunches to be served.
From 7:30 a.m., happy student chatter piles up as the kids arrive.
Jennifer, who is in her late teens, is in her last year of elementary school and has great ambitions to work in healthcare, preferably as a midwife so she can help mothers.
“My favorite subject is science. I really like a teacher and I think that is why I want to continue in this field.”
Waking up every morning and attending class, as Jennifer does, is something many in the world take for granted. But here in South Sudan, every day in attendance is a victory.
The country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world with only a third of people able to read and 2.8 million children out of school.
And the global food crisis is acutely felt here. The cost of the food basket has increased by 70 percent in Torit compared to pre-war prices in Ukraine. The prices of some foodstuffs, such as corn and red beans, increased by 140 percent.
Families are also grappling with the effects of the climate crisis as floods and droughts have destroyed crops, driving up food prices and limiting coping mechanisms available to families.
Ongoing conflict in some parts of the country makes it difficult to send children to school and the dropout rate is high.
Girls are particularly at risk of not finishing their education. Many of them are married, as young as 14, and are expected to have children soon after. Then they drop out of school.
In 2018, over 156,000 girls were enrolled in the first year of school but just over 5,000 were enrolled in the final year. Meanwhile, 40% of girls get married before the age of 18 in South Sudan, according to a 2020 report.
Jennifer refuses to become a statistic.
“I don’t see any benefits from early marriage,” she says. “Education is important to understand what is best for your family and not fall for superstitious tricks. Many families have problems because the parents are not educated, and they cannot help their children later.”
A key component of keeping students in school is the school lunch provided by the World Food Program (WFP) as part of a joint WFP-UNICEF project in urban areas of South Sudan to improve resilience, school attendance and nutrition.
For many students, that single meal provides a lifeline. Without it, their lives would be vastly different. Lunch is often the only nutritious meal students receive each day and provides an incentive for parents to send their children to school. For other students, it takes pressure off their home lives so they can focus on their studies.
James, who is also in his first year of adulthood, is another student at the school.
“I lost my father, and my family doesn’t have much money,” he says. “So I work wedding wedding (motorcycle) to pay for my education and support for my family.”
Receiving lunch at school and knowing his siblings are also receiving food means there is one less meal for James to worry about each day. It gives him space to plan his future.
“I would like to become a doctor to support my community because many people in South Sudan are suffering due to inadequate health services,” he says.
For these ambitious students, receiving this support is invaluable and will have a ripple effect, providing positive contributions to their immediate family and community.
These school meals are made possible by funding from the German Development Bank KfW, which has provided resources to the World Food Program and UNICEF to support 550,000 people in urban centers in South Sudan for four years. WFP continues to provide school meals, food assistance and resilience activities