As a teacher, one of my mum's most satisfying jobs was teaching at an English as a Second Language (ESL) school in Sydney. These were kids from refugee and migrant backgrounds that understood and appreciated the value of education. Understandably, most of these families didn't have a lot of money, and so, one of the regular programs the teachers implemented, and paid for themselves, was school breakfasts.
One reliable, nutritious meal a day for school-aged kids can make a vital difference to their wellbeing, health and learning potential.
In Laos, it can be even more vital.
Schools across Laos, particularly in rural and remote areas, are pretty different to schools in Western countries. The rooms have dirt or cement floors, three kids to a desk, thatched walls, chalk and blackboards, textbooks several years old, and a shortage of pens to go around. Many classrooms have no fans in summer or heating in winter, and sometimes even no walls, electricity or running water.
Families pay a contribution to the school to supplement the government funding, as well as provide uniforms (all Lao schools wear the same uniform), books and other supplies. At lunch, the kids go home to eat, then return for afternoon classes. Both parents work and in rural areas, that usually means in rice fields or other farm work. It's hard for everyone and there isn't a lot of spare cash.
So, if kids can have food provided at school, it goes a long way beyond satisfying tummy rumblings. Schools have better attendance levels, as kids don't have to go home and back again; they have improved nutrition and health; they can concentrate longer with a follow on benefit of better education outcomes; parents don't need to provide a meal or leave work to look after kids during the lunch period; and it encourages kids to attend and stay at school.
Oudomxay (pronounced 'Oo-dom-sigh') is one of the poorest provinces in northern Laos. Stunning, isn't it?
Poor or not, children in Oudomxay seem really happy. They are friendly and cheerful and keen to learn.
In one school with no running water, children have to carry 5 litres of water each once a week as part of their contribution. The little ones sometimes cry because it's too heavy and they need an older brother or sister to carry their share.
The path to school is down a muddy slope and across a makeshift log bridge; particularly treacherous during the rainy season.
There are about 500 schools in Oudomxay and they all take part in a school meals program.
These are the women preparing the school daily snack. It's made from a special corn soya blend fortified with vitamins and minerals and donated by the U.S. Sugar is provided by Cuba. Vegetables, fruit and rice are also contributed by the village families. The corn soya blend is stored in giant vats and kept in warehouses on stilts with a metal mesh wrapped round the outside to prevent rats getting in.
Snack time and there is no dining area so the children eat in their classroom.
The school here will also soon be connected to running water for the first time, and the children are very relieved to be spared their water-carrying duties.
Maybe it will mean a bit more time to just be kids having fun in the sun.