AKRON, Pa. – Four-year-old Trinh Hoai Linh is delighted when her teacher leads the class in singing at her preschool in a rural Vietnamese rice-growing area. Bright and engaged, Linh enjoys being with her friends and teacher at preschool.
Until recently, though, Linh left to go home for lunch and rarely made it back for the afternoon session.
Now, a lunch program supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is doubling the amount of time Linh spends in school.
Through Global Family education sponsorship program and Food, Disaster and Material Resources (FDMR) program, MCC funding covers up to half of the cost of lunches at five Vietnamese preschools in two provinces. Because lunch at school is more affordable – and because parents don’t have to stop work to return children to school after lunch – more preschool students are attending afternoon classes.
Linh, for instance, lives less than a kilometer (less than two-thirds of a mile) from school in Phu Tho Province. But her mother, Vũ Thị Lương, is unable to accompany her back to school after lunch. Linh’s father and oldest brother suffer from a mental illness that makes it difficult for them to contribute to the family’s income. Vũ cultivates rice, the family’s only and often just-barely-enough source of food and income.
Increasing the time students spend in preschool helps build a firmer foundation for primary school success. Children are more ready to enter elementary school and more likely to succeed once there.
The lunch, which includes rice, soup and protein, such as meat or eggs, provides good nutrition. In a neighboring province, Global Family supports a lunch program in a school where more than 13 percent of preschool children were malnourished. According to a December report, quarterly health checks showed that 85 of 95 lunch program participants who were checked earlier in the school year had gained weight.
Global Family and FDMR cover 30 percent of the preschool lunch program costs, 50 percent for students from families considered poor by local government standards. While a single lunch costs only the equivalent of 29 cents, the subsidy makes a huge difference to local families, say program staff.
On top of the daily lunch fees, parents must pay a monthly school fee of about $2.16 and an additional cost to attend preschool in the summer. While these fees may seem nominal, they are a stretch for the many Vietnamese families who depend on proceeds from a single rice crop to survive.
Vũ, for instance, harvests a single ton of rice per year, and the family’s well-being depends on the outcome of that crop. In the past, she has borrowed money from family members or neighbors to pay Linh’s school fees. Recently, she has begun raising ducks. If successful, she will be able to sell the birds for around $4 each, enhancing her income and making sure she can continue to afford schooling for her daughter.
After Global Family and FDMR began supporting the lunch program in La Phu Commune, where Linh lives, parents gathered to work together to encourage school participation. Lương says that now almost all the children stay for the afternoon, where before only about 70 percent did.