Sweet potatoes: A special ingredient for Ethiopian schools

School children watering the sweet potato fields. Photo credit: Stephanie Savariaud/ WFP

World Food Programme Field Officer Stephanie Savariaud reports from Ethiopia, where she is based.

“I heard about sweet potatoes on the radio, and we talked about them at my school’s science club, but I have never eaten one before. I am waiting for the sweet potatoes in our school garden to grow. If I like it, I will ask my parents to grow some,” said 15-year-old student Gebregreges Halton to visitors at his school.

Gebregreges is in the eighth grade at Meara School in Tigray, Ethiopia, one of six schools in the region where the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is piloting the introduction of sweet potatoes into school gardens through its school meals program. The program provides a daily hot meal to students at participating schools, simultaneously addressing short-term hunger, providing nutritional benefits and boosting school enrollment in chronically food insecure districts of Ethiopia.

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School children watering the sweet potato fields. Photo credit: Photo credit: Stephanie Savariaud/ WFP

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Gebregreges Halton, 15 years old, is a student at Meara school involved in the sweet potato project. Photo credit: Photo credit: Stephanie Savariaud/ WFP

As ONE points out, sweet potatoes are a highly-nutritious crop and a potent force in the fight against vitamin A deficiency. And as Haile Tesfay, project coordinator for the WFP partner organization Irish Aid Nutrition puts it, “sweet potatoes are an ideal emergency crop. They do not need fertilizer and can thrive despite erratic rainfall patterns. They could actually be lifesaving if there is a crop failure.”

The introduction of sweet potatoes to our school meals program is special. School science clubs are attracting more students, all interested in learning more about sweet potatoes. Students get the chance to tend the sweet potato field, where water harvesting systems have been installed, and learn about agriculture and nutrition in the process. To garner community support for the initiative and spark interest in the new crop, radio spots are airing on local stations discussing the benefits of sweet potatoes.

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Cooks from the community will soon be able to incorporate sweet potatoes into the daily WFP meals. Photo credit: Photo credit: Stephanie Savariaud/ WFP

Nearly 650,000 school children in Ethiopia receive a school meal from WFP every day. Primary schools in pastoral and food insecure districts where children, especially girls, are less likely to have access to an education are targeted most. In some regions of the country, WFP procures food from local farmers, linking existing school meals to local agricultural production and markets.

In a few short weeks, the nutritious sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest and school cooks will begin to integrate them into the school meals. Sweet potatoes will be used in different ways—boiled in enriched vegetable oil, used to make bread, even made into flour with special equipment. Sweet potatoes in the form of flour may be mixed with teff, the unique and favorite staple grain used to make the famous Ethiopian flatbread Injera.

As the project expands, these sweet potatoes could become a special ingredient to Ethiopia’s future. And these students – taught about the nutritious impact of the food they learn to grown – are likely to become the next generation of farmers cultivating more nutritious crops for their community and the next generation of parents nurturing healthier families.

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