‘We feed 2,000 children’: turning surplus food into free school meals in Kenya

Natalie Healey

Some pupils at Maua school in Naivasha, Kenya, were so hungry that they’d skip school to search the bushes for wild fruit. Others who didn’t cut class would steal from nearby shops so they’d have something to eat for lunch.

Headteacher Rosalin Wafula was growing concerned with the high levels of truancy and signs of poor concentration in the 850 students she looks after.

“Some children had food; some did not. In a school, we should have equality. But many would feel out of place because they didn’t have anything to eat,” she says.

But thanks to a new scheme that turns surplus food from local packhouses into free meals for children, Wafula has seen a big improvement in attendance and classroom participation.

Stevenage-based Flamingo Produce has been supplying vegetables such as green beans, baby corn and broccoli from Kenya to Tesco in the UK since 1994, and was looking for ways to reduce food waste and benefit the community at the same time.

“In Kenya, we end up with a lot of green beans that are too curly. In the UK, you may have the opportunity to sell them as part of Tesco’s ‘perfectly imperfect’ veg range. But we’re 6,000 miles away and flying such a product is not environmentally, or economically, very wise,” managing director Ian Michell explains.

Flamingo had already taken small steps to tackle food waste, such as no longer trimming green beans before they are transported and sold. But Michell knew more could be done.

Working with Tesco, he came up with the idea of setting up kitchens in the Kenya packhouse to make soup from the leftover vegetables to give to children at lunchtime. The scheme is based on the supermarket’s Community Food Connection programme in the UK, where leftover food from stores is donated to local charities. To date, Tesco has donated more than 150m meals from surplus food to local charities worldwide.

“We’re now feeding 2,000 children a day,” Michell says.

It wasn’t as simple as it sounds, though, recalls HR manager Tabitha Ngaywa. Soup isn’t a particularly common meal in Kenya. She was worried the kids wouldn’t actually want to eat it. Luckily, Flamingo Produce’s canteen manager was able to work with pupils and their parents to create a hot meal that the community could enjoy.

“We don’t really appreciate soup in Kenya. So when the idea came to us it was a little bit difficult for us to imagine how it would be done,” Ngaywa reveals.

Parents, pupils and teachers were brought on board to test the dish. Once feedback was positive, Flamingo Produce went ahead with the pilot in March, recruiting extra staff to help prepare and transport the meals.

According to Wafula, Ngaywa needn’t have worried – children often ask for second helpings. She’s seen a great improvement in the quality of their work and attitude in the classroom, too.

“Some of these children might not have had dinner the night before, or a proper breakfast in the morning. Their concentration was very low. But now they are very eager to learn. They are able to stay in class and participate. So they love it.”

The scheme is in place across two schools in Naivasha now, and Flamingo Produce plans to roll it out to the company’s packhouses in Peru, Guatemala and Morocco soon.

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“Tesco’s help and funding will allow us to scale this into different regions all over the world. My target is 2m school meals in the year 2020,” says Michell. “We also hope to take a lot more of our products and make them into nutritious meals with long shelf lives. This will help us transport the product anywhere in the world to low-income families.”

As Wafula points out, the promise of a free, nutritious meal each day can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing.

“Every child should have that sense of belonging. And now, everyone feels equal because they all have something to eat.”

Tesco donates surplus food every day to local charities and community groups through its Community Food Connection scheme, in partnership with food redistribution charity FareShare. Find out more about how Tesco is reducing waste from farm to fork