Beirut, Lebanon – On Saturday December 19, 2016, Matthias Schmale, the Director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) Lebanon Field Office, visited Shatila in support of the CRPH-run Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Children project.
Healthy Kitchens trains women from Palestinian refugee communities in acquiring expertise in food safety and the preparation of healthy traditional meals. In addition to providing employment opportunities and entrepreneurial skills for women, the food produced in these kitchens is used to supply daily healthy school meals for 450 children aged 5 to 12 years attending UNRWA schools.
Schools participating in this project benefit from an institutionalized meal program providing children with a balanced and healthy diet where none currently exist. The availability of healthy eating alternatives for children in schools has the potential to provide for healthy growth and development and improve educational outcomes, ultimately contributing positively to the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees.
“We at UNRWA hope to make [the Healthy Kitchens project] the model for other UNRWA schools across the country,” says Schmale. “So far, I have looked at this as providing healthy food for children. But I can also see that there is an aspect of giving women meaningful activity – and that is impressive to see.”
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are protracted refugees with high rates of poverty and food insecurity, which threatens nutritional status, as well as physical, mental, and social health. Data from the Center for Research on Population and Health (CRPH) at AUB indicate that about a third of these children come to school without having had breakfast. Schoolchildren then resort to purchasing packaged foods at school, which are typically high in fat, sugar, and salt. As the enrollment rate of children aged 7-12 is at 95 percent, there is much potential for schools to provide healthier alternatives and have a positive impact on child nutritional status.
To date, the Healthy Kitchens project has fully equipped two kitchens in two Palestinian camps (Bourj El Barajneh and Shatila) in Beirut, trained 35 women who are part of local Community Based Organizations (CBO) and linked each kitchen to UNRWA elementary schools for the provision of a daily healthy meal to schoolchildren. Data from the first year of the pilot have shown positive effects on social support and mental health of women as well as nutritional practices of children. As a result of the program, children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals, and dairy at school significantly increased. There was also a significant decrease in their daily consumption of sweetened beverages, desserts, and fat.
UNRWA operates 69 schools in Lebanon with close to 40,000 students in attendance on a daily basis. Healthy Kitchens is a collaboration between the University of Maryland, CRPH at AUB, UNRWA, and two community-based organizations in Bourj El Barajneh and Shatila camps. By engaging women and providing healthy school meals for children, the project aims to be a model for future school feeding programs in UNRWA-operated schools.