by Julius Gale
JUBA, March 28 (Xinhua) -- For 18-year-old Rebecca Adara, a plate of boiled wholegrain sorghum is enough to keep her strong and attentive all day round at school.
"The feeding program has helped me to concentrate on my studies because I don't go out to look for food like before when I spent long time to eat from home," Adara told Xinhua in the northwestern city of Aweil, referring to a feeding program supported by the World Food Program (WFP).
In a country buffeted by severe food shortage, economic crisis and massive displacement due to conflict, school feeding programs have become relevant ways to fight hunger and malnutrition among school-going children like Adara.
The program fed some 400,000 school children last year, and the UN agency plans to feed an estimated 500,000 children in over 1,000 schools across the conflict-torn east African country in 2019, said Simon Cammelbeeck, WFP deputy country director in South Sudan.
"We know that it is very difficult to learn on empty stomach so by providing the meals, we know that more children will come to school, increase enrolment and attendance," Cammelbeeck said. "We are quite convinced that if we can even expand it further in future, we will have more children coming to school and that is the future of this nation."
South Sudan, which descended into a brutal civil war in late 2013, is suffering acute hunger, and half of the population of 12 million people risk starvation, according to a report, by three UN agencies and the government, released last month.
The world's youngest country has some of the worst literacy levels globally. Only 25 percent can read and write, and 2.2 million children are out of school due to conflict.
To boost South Sudan's education sector, the WFP and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) early this week lunched a joint European Union-funded education project that seeks to provide daily meals to 75,000 school children, train some 1,600 teachers and provide psycho-social support services for 40,000 children who are enrolled in schools and those out of school.
The 24.4 million euro (about 27.4 million U.S. dollars) joint initiative will also help participating schools establish school gardens, where children can learn good farming practices while supplementing their school meals with fresh produce.
"The daily school meals enable the children to focus on their learning and grow into healthy learners," UNICEF South Sudan representative Mohamed Ag Ayoya said. "This combination of essential services provided to the children will be an important contribution to more resilient and peaceful communities."
Deng Deng Hoc Yai, South Sudan's minister of General Education and Instruction, said the project is vital for the transformation of South Sudan's education sector.
"We are implementing measures to improve the quality of education in the whole country. The government is working to increase the education budget from 10 percent to 15 percent (and to) implement new curriculum and train more teachers," Yai said.