A Step Toward Peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo | Opinion

It was former President Harry Truman who said, "No nation is any healthier than its children." This was the inspiration behind the U.S. national school lunch program started by Truman in 1946. School lunches vastly improved the health of American youth.

The dream of a national school lunch program is just as important to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Almost every tragedy imaginable has afflicted this large nation in Central Africa. The DRC is about the size of Western Europe.

War, disease, poverty and even a volcanic eruption have happened this year. The DRC has suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic, cholera, as well as outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus. Heavily armed militias terrorize parts of the country, especially the northeast. Fighting has led to mass displacement and the loss of agriculture and livelihoods.

Hunger is a crisis that impacts the whole country. There are 26.2 million people listed as "highly food insecure" in the DRC, according to the U.N. World Food Program. With that many people suffering severe hunger, it's almost impossible to address society's problems. A whole generation of malnourished children cannot build a nation.

Work in a cornfield in the DRC
Workers in a cornfield in the DRC. Agriculture can bind communities together in peace and farmers can become suppliers for a national school lunch program in the DRC. WFP needs funding to expand these initiatives. Marco Frattini/WFP

One way the World Food Program (WFP) helps is by providing school meals for about 200,000 children in the DRC. Imagine the relief impoverished families have when they know that free meals are being provided to children at school. If you are struggling to provide food for your family, school meals become a treasure filled with nutrition and hope.

School meals are a very powerful incentive for parents to send their children to class. If you add take home rations to the program, which the WFP does for some students—especially girls—the incentive becomes even more powerful.

School meals give children energy to learn. It is only through education that any country can advance.

Children enjoying WFP school meals
Children enjoying WFP school meals in the DRC. The goal is to have every child in the DRC receive school meals daily, with take home rations. WFP

But the 200,000 children WFP plans to reach this year in the DRC with school meals is only the beginning. With additional funding, WFP could feed many more impoverished children in the DRC. WFP said it "requires USD 11 to 35 million a year to meet the target of 300,000 to 500,000 students by 2024."

The ultimate goal is a national school lunch program for the DRC that feeds every child year round. And that's not all. WFP has a homegrown school meals project, which encourages DRC farmers to provide food for the program. Having meals sourced from nearby farmers gives an extra boost to the local economy and reduces poverty. Homegrown school meals provide opportunities for DRC farms to grow and allows the school lunch program to become self-sustaining.

Agriculture is also a binding force between communities in a country that has suffered from internal conflict for decades. The DRC needs less militarism and guns and more people farming and growing crops.

If you want to paint a picture of what a peaceful and prosperous DRC would look like, it should include school meals for every child as well as infant feeding. It should also have farmers in the DRC contributing to the school meals program.

People in the DRC
Hunger, conflict, poverty and displacement have taken a terrible toll on children in the DRC. School meals from WFP are a life-saver for these children, provided there is enough funding from donors. Benjamin Anguandia/WFP

How do we get there? The first step is to do what President Truman did in 1946. As he built the national school lunch program in the U.S., Truman was also helping other countries recover from World War II by feeding the hungry. Former President Herbert Hoover served as Truman's food ambassador to determine the needs in various countries where there were food shortages. Building supplies for school feeding was part of the Hoover mission and led to the development of massive child feeding programs in Germany, Japan and other countries. School lunches helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

Today, we should identify the total number of children who need school meals in the DRC. The World Food Program should receive funding to carry out the expansion of school meals so every child is fed. Working with the DRC government, the homegrown school feeding project should also be developed to be the source for school meals.

With every child receiving school meals, and a gradual development of local farmers providing the food, the DRC will have a roadmap to a national school lunch program. It won't be easy because of challenges like natural disasters and insecurity in parts of the country, but let's take this step for peace and do everything we can to boost the health of all children in the DRC with school meals.

William Lambers is an author who partnered with the U.N. World Food Program on the book Ending World Hunger. His writings have been published by The New York Times, History News Network, Newsweek and many other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.