Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Georgia: Feeding The Mind
This Tbilisi classroom is freezing and dilapidated, but the pupils, all aged between six and eight, are happy to be tucking into a break-time snack of milk and buns.
For most of these children this will be their main meal of the day - which accounts for the pleasure they're experiencing in something most boys and girls take for granted.
The schoolchildren here are being looked after as part of a countrywide scheme to feed children from the poorest Georgian families. The programme was launched six months ago in an attempt to reduce high truancy levesl and deal with a serious infant malnutrition problem.
Georgia is one of 38 countries to benefit from the Global Food for Education Initiative, GFEI, a 300 million US dollar scheme set up two years ago by the USA to distribute excess American agricultural produce to schoolchildren in poorer nations..
The scheme now provides 14,000 Georgian children with free meals. The lure of free food is enough of an incentive to make many parents send their children to school and to ensure the children want to go too.
"Attendance has definitely improved since food has been distributed to the children," said Shura Zoidze, a secondary school teacher. "Not everyone can afford to buy cheese, cake or milk for their children. This is especially true for larger families with no permanent housing."
Many of the recipients of the food aid are internally displaced persons, IDPs, who fled Georgia's war in the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia in 1992-3. Zoidze herself comes from Abkhazia and the school at which she teaches is part of a centre for refugees from the conflict.
Twelve-year-old Marika, a pupil at Zoidze's school, said that she used to skip classes in order to sell newspapers in the subway and earn a little cash. As her parents died in the Abkhazia conflict, she now lives with her sick grandmother, getting by on a meagre state allowance. Marika shares the food she gets with her grandmother. "I want to study to become a doctor," Marika said. "Then I'll give granny good pills and she won't cough any more."
The NGO, International Orthodox Christian Charities, or IOCC, has been put in charge of the food programme in Georgia. Their remit is to pinpoint the most deserving members of the population.
In the main that means refugees, people like, Givi Chalidze, a father of eight, who receives just 20 US dollars a month to look after his family, squeezed into a tiny unheated apartment. "My wife and I couldn't find jobs," Chalidze said. "I've asked for help from a number of state bodies. But all in vain. We're told we're just beggars and fugitives. That's how they see us."
Givi's wife, Guliko Chalidze apologised for staying in bed during my visit saying that this was the only way she could keep her ill son Dato warm. They were pleased that their daughter Tina was one of the beneficiaries of the food project. Tina said that she liked going to school, "because they give us tasty cakes."
The programme aims to give the children as varied a menu as possible. As well as cake, the pupils are given Georgia's traditional cheese pie, khachapuri, buns and bean-filled pastries.
"The children are very happy with the food they get," said Dodo Zaridze, the headmistress at a secondary school in the capital, which currently looks after 446 children from IDP families. "And it's a great relief for the parents to know that their children aren't hungry." She added, "Some are very poor and suffer from malnutrition."
The success of the programme will be gauged by changes in truancy levels and the health of the children participating. If the verdict is positive, the project will be extended.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist at the Tbilisi-based newspaper Georgia Today.
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