By Jess Carter
It all started on a hot day in a small village in rural Bangladesh four years ago. We began the morning chopping garlic and potatoes, and had hired a rickshaw wallah to cart five big pots of curry to a nearby school. When we arrived, there were questions, shy giggles and suddenly, lots of hands – making mounds of rice, passing spoons to serve a friend’s meal, and scrubbing bowls clean.
It was the birth of Everyone Eats. And friends, students, teachers and community members were celebrating over a first meal of khichori and duy for 145 children in a village where hunger is common.
Everyone Eats was a plan hatched between friends across continents, kicked off by the community relationships and expertise of NGO Hunger Free World Bangladesh (HFW) coupled with the can-do attitude and fundraising vision of Founder Justin Watts. We wanted to add value to an existing community development initiative and explore ways to make giving easier.
Since then, we’ve provided nearly 100,000 school lunches by raising about $10,000 a year. It’s been a bumpy and fun ride, and we thought we’d share some of the lessons we learned along the way to inspire and encourage other social entrepreneurs keen to make a difference.
Let the locals show you the way
Both Justin and I were passionate about ending hunger – no child or adult should need to go hungry and yet every day one in nine people do. Two-thirds of those people are in Asia. We’d both grown up in country Australia on farms, and were also outraged that many of the world’s hungriest people are farmers.
Justin had been raising money for the World Food Programme and I was working with HFW on their food security programs. HFW already had existing expertise in delivering school meals, but wanted to provide additional meals to students at schools in poorer areas of the community. They’d also identified some ways they could improve their school meals program, but lacked the resources to investigate this further.
On the advice of HFW, we selected another community as the pilot location for expanding the school meals project, as previous community assessments by HFW identified this as an area where the community would benefit from school lunches, and community members confirmed this.
This step was really important. By partnering with an existing organisation with local relationships within the community, we were able to move much faster in setting up the project. Community trust was crucial, and meant that local mothers volunteered to help cook the lunches (we were eventually able to pay them a small wage for this) and local shops and markets agreed to deals on rice and other produce to make the meals more affordable.
The magic is in the mix
The program started simply. Our goal was to ensure that all children in the community had access to at least one healthy, nutritious meal five days a week. The food was sourced from local farmers that HFW was working with through its other programs, and delivered to the children at lunch time by local staff and volunteers.
One of the first changes we started to see was an increase in school attendance. This led to an improvement in exam results across the board, and also saw kid’s participation rates increase. One little boy, Lipu, had been regularly missing more than a week of school each month. After a few months of school meals, this dropped to two days a month. His parents, who had never forced him to go to school, even commented that he had started doing homework.
After about a year of delivering school lunches, we started to expand the program to take a more holistic approach to hunger. We knew that feeding kids healthy meals at school needed to be complemented by nutritious meals at home. Both students and parents started attending nutrition education classes, delivered at school and also through HFW’s other community networks. The approach was based on a similar project HFW had implemented in a different area, but integrating the classes with meals led to higher attendance and community engagement. The classes were delivered by a local health worker trained through another NGO working in the area – BRAC.
About six months later, we hired a local Doctor to do monthly health checks for the children. This also helped to improve the way we understood the program’s impact by providing valuable insights into how students’ weights, heights, nutrition and overall health were changing.
While the program didn’t have enough budget to cover the cost of medications the Doctor might have recommended, we were able to tap into existing government programs to make sure children got vaccinations for measles and rubella, and de-worming tablets.
By constantly looking for simple adaptations and partnerships to improve the program’s original vision, we were able to develop a more integrated and holistic solution that met the community’s needs more effectively.
Give yourself time
After one year of successfully delivering school meals through the pilot, we committed to provide funding for the Everyone Eats project for a three year period commencing April 2013 until April 2016. This was really important for the program’s success, because it gave us time to incorporate community suggestions into the model, and gave HFW the freedom to explore ways the program could make a bigger impact – improving it with health education classes, adjusting the meals based on feedback, and engaging with local health professionals to ensure we were providing adequate support.
On the fundraising side – which Justin has documented here – a one-year pilot and three-year commitment also gave us impetus to forge ahead despite challenges raising a steady amount of funds from a constant group of supporters. Since we were learning as we went – figuring out how to raise funds while figuring out how we could do more for the community in Bangladesh – three years was long enough to explore opportunities but close enough on the horizon to stop us lingering too long!
When it comes to making a lasting difference, solutions shouldn’t be rushed. While local partnerships and continuous improvement might be development-speak buzzwords, in practice they were key to the success of the first four years of Everyone Eats.
Want to know more? Feel free to get in touch via jess.carter [at] yahoo.com.au or LinkedIn.