What meals do kids get at Compassion? (part one)

“What food do children get from Compassion each week?”

We hear this question pretty often. Naturally, our sponsors want to know how far their money is going. But development isn’t as easily quantifiable as a number of meals per week. The issue of meals and child nutrition is a complicated one, so these posts will be your guide to better understanding how our program works.

Part one: It’s contextual

The short answer to the question of how many meals children receive is, “It depends.”

A unique aspect of Compassion’s ministry is that it is run through local churches and implemented by people from the local community. That means each church partner has the freedom to contextualize Compassion’s program in a way that meets the needs of their particular community, while still following Compassion’s general guidelines.

We call this “freedom within a framework.” The framework—our guideline—is that each church partner provides a meal or nutritious snack for children when they visit the Compassion centre. The freedom is that each of our field offices and church partners determine when the centres will meet and what food will be served.

For example, in Kenya, six- to eight-year-old children attend the Compassion centre for eight hours each Saturday. They don’t attend the centre other days of the week because they have school and chores that keep them busy. Many of them walk long distances to the centre, and younger children are often accompanied by working parents, which makes it impractical for them to come more than once a week. So these children receive a meal and a snack each Saturday, since they are at the centre for eight hours. A meal might consist of rice, beef stew and some green vegetables. A snack might be a cup of porridge or a piece of bread and some fruit.

While children in Kenya generally receive one meal and snack a week, six- to eight-year-old children in Bangladesh visit the Compassion centre six days a week—five hours a day from Monday through Friday and eight hours on Saturday. Schools in Bangladesh don’t generally start until 10:30 a.m., so children go to the Compassion centre before school and after school as well. Children spend more hours at the Compassion centres in Bangladesh to combat malnutrition and because the children need extra educational support.

Contrary to what most people believe, rates of undernourished children in heavily populated South Asian countries are double the rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half the children in Bangladesh are severely or moderately underweight, and four out of ten children under five years old are stunted. So children at Compassion centres in Bangladesh receive a meal five days a week and fruit and milk once a week. The meals might consist of rice, lentils, meat and vegetables.

While children in Bangladesh receive a meal or snack six times a week, Compassion Ethiopia doesn’t provide meals for children attending the centre. The Ethiopian government strongly discourages non-governmental organizations from distributing food, especially centre-based meal programs.

According to Dr. Fikre Lobago, Compassion Ethiopia’s Program Director, “This is done mainly to minimize an unnecessary dependency syndrome and encourage poor people to consider sustainable ways of securing a livelihood, rather than depending upon someone’s helping hand on a continual basis.”

While children in Ethiopia don’t receive a meal at the Compassion centre, they do receive a light snack at some centres, and in some areas, families regularly receive oil and cereal grains as nutritional support. This enables the family to take the money they would have spent on grains and oil and spend it on veggies and fruit. And in the case that a child is malnourished, that child would receive additional support (more on that in upcoming posts).

Lastly, we encourage our church partners to tap into local resources to support the children. Often, there are resources available through schools or other governmental and non-governmental organizations to support children nutritionally. We encourage our partners to use these resources so that not only will our support go further, but the church partners can become more and more equipped to become self-sustaining.

Because, ultimately, Compassion’s programs are focused on helping children become responsible adults who can support themselves. That’s why our programs are about development, not a handout. The next post will focus on how development guides what meals we serve to the children, and the final post will focus on how we respond when a child is malnourished.

Written by: Amber Van Schooneveld

Amber Van Schooneveld is the Managing Editor of Compassion International's blog.