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Julia Poni working for WFP in Maban. Photo: WFP/Eulalia Berlanga

From eating to providing school meals: Julia’s personal story with WFP

Growing up in Juba in the early 2000s, Julia dreamt of working for the World Food Programme (WFP), the organization behind the warm meals and the “girls’ package” she received at school. Now, years later, her dreams have become a reality after landing a job with WFP. Julia is based in Maban, Upper Nile State, where she’s a field monitor, ensuring WFP’s programmes are running smoothly.

“As a kid I always had a passion to support, to help people, because I grew up in a conflict and I saw people suffering around me,” Julia remembers. “WFP was not only providing meals at my school, but they were also giving food assistance to almost everybody in Juba.”

In a country where two-thirds of the country faces critical food insecurity and half of all children are out of school, school meals are a daily lifeline for many students whose parents keep them enrolled and attending the classroom to ease the pressure on the household food budget.

“My father was a teacher and wanted me to study despite the pressure from the community. It was normal for girls to marry as young as 13, but it was not the case for everyone,” says Julia.

Girls are at particularly high risk of being pulled from the classroom early for marriage, especially when a family is struggling financially. To incentivize families to send their daughters to school, WFP provided, and still provides, what’s known as the girl package, a take-home ration with cereals and oil for them and their families.

“Many families see their daughter’s marriage as an easy solution for their economic struggle which also ends their studies. With these packages, WFP highlights the importance of their education and incentivizes families to keep girls at school,” says Aachal Chand, Head of Nutrition and School Meals at WFP South Sudan.

After finishing secondary school in Juba, Julia moved to Malakal in the north of the country to get her diploma in ICT at Upper Nile University. Throughout her studies she worked for a security company but she never forgot her childhood dream of working for WFP. As soon as she finished her studies she began applying for jobs and, a few months later, she got an offer to work for WFP’s Field Office in Maban. She hasn’t looked back since.

“If I could say something to young Julia’s out there, I would tell them to study and follow their dreams. Despite all the challenges, a dream is not just a dream; I am living my dreams now and their dreams can also become their reality,” says Julia.

Across the country there are an estimated 2.7 million potential Julia’s. Some are in school and on their way to achieving their dreams, but others are in need of a strong social safety net and support to help get them into school so they can reach their full potential.

Lilian is 13 years old and one of those on their way to achieving her dreams. She attends primary school in Kapoeta North, in the south-east of the country and has her sights set on becoming a nurse to help people in her community, especially the orphans and widows. She’s passionate about education and the places it can take her and her peers.

“With education you can change yourself and your community, learn what is right and what is wrong,” says Lilian.

Girls in South Sudan often have a delayed start to or interrupted education, this is due to a low prioritization of their education or marrying at a young age. School meals are an important incentive for families, particularly in highly food insecure areas, to send their children to school by ensuring students have at least one nutritious meal a day and taking economic pressure off families.

Lilian’s school saw a sharp increase in the number of students after they started serving meals provided by WFP. From 700 children in 2019, the school has now 1252 students eager to learn every day. But as resources become increasingly constrained, fewer students and communities are able to benefit from WFP’s School Meals programme; from 600,000 in 2022 to only 440,000 in 2023.

“The School Meals programme is critical for the future of millions of girls and the future of South Sudan,” said WFP Representative to South Sudan, Mary-Ellen McGroarty. “Among our staff in WFP South Sudan we have people who have been refugees, people who have received school meals, and people who used to rely on WFP for food each day. This shows just how a little support can go a long way in creating a generation of people who can help build a country.”  

School meals are possible thanks to support from Canada, the European Union, Japan, and Germany.

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