School children in action. Tending to vegetables in their school garden in Tartous, Syria.
29 August 2017, Rome: As schools resume next week in Syria, thousands of school children are benefiting from a food and nutrition education programme that is using school gardens to teach students about the importance of fruit and vegetable consumption as part of a balanced and healthy diet.
With around half of the Syrian population in need of food support and some 7 million people food insecure, young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition, which can have serious and long-lasting effects on their growth and future development.
“The ongoing crisis in Syria is having a devastating effect on the health and nutrition of an entire generation of children,” said Adam Yao, acting FAO Representative in Syria. “But through these school gardens, children are now learning about key concepts related to food and nutrition while they also have access to nutritious fruit and vegetables.”
School children and their teachers planting lettuce at a school in Tartous, Syria. ©FAO/Zaki Khozam
This is the first time school gardens have been introduced in Syria at the primary school level, with 300 teachers trained in 17 schools, including in conflict-affected Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idleb and Rural Damascus. Through the programme, more than 3,400 children get to learn about food and nutrition and, at the same time, eat more fruit and vegetables. This initiative is part of a broader, European Union-funded USD6.5 million programme to bolster food security in conflict-torn Syria.
“The school gardens are like an outdoor classroom, where the children learn by doing,” said Mr Yao, adding that the benefits extend beyond the classroom and playground to the children’s families and communities.
“Good nutrition is a child’s first defence against common diseases and is important for children to be able to lead an active and healthy life.”
“Often schools are the only place where children acquire important life skills, so these school gardens are a powerful tool for not only improving children’s nutrition, but also for helping them to develop and grow,” he said.
With the inputs provided, each school has developed a school garden of approximately 500 square metres, equipped with water tanks and a drip irrigation system. With support from FAO and a local NGO taking care of the day-to-day production, the school gardens have collectively produced approximately 12 tonnes of fruit and vegetables.
Nutrition education is key. School children and FAO staff discuss nutrition at a school garden in Hama, Syria. ©FAO/Wajdi Skaf
Food and nutrition education amplifies the impact of food security programmes
“There is growing evidence that food production alone makes little impact on dietary practices unless it is backed by food and nutrition education. From past experience we’ve seen that the combination of nutrition education and vegetable gardening has a proven impact on diet,” said Ahmed Raza, FAO Nutrition and Food Systems Officer.
This is why the European Union-funded FAO school garden programme promotes a “whole school” approach to food and nutrition education, in which classroom learning is linked with practical activities, reinforced by a nutrition- and health-friendly school environment that involves school personnel, families and the community.
“At school, they taught us about cabbages, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce and a lot of other foods. They also taught us the food pyramid and all about vitamins and how we benefit from them,” said Bilasan, a fifth grader from Bahaa Eddin Sajer Primary School in Rural Damascus governorate.
Bilasan’s mother is also starting to see the benefits of what her daughter is learning. “At home, she planted strawberries and every morning she gets the hose and waters the plants and tells me ‘this is what I learned at school, mum.’”
The project is being implemented with facilitation support from UNICEF, and WFP’s school meals programme, and will soon be scaled up to a further 35 schools in Aleppo and Rural Damascus thanks to additional funding from the Government of Japan.
A lush school garden in Tartous, Syria. Students grow a range of vegetables: pepper, tomatoes, lettuce and eggplants. ©FAO/Wajdi Skaf