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Fortified Whole Grain Porridge Fights Hunger Worsened by Climate Change

What does climate change look like? Picture those evenings when Josephine Kadenyi Karani’s seven children in Murang’a County, Kenya, see that she is not lighting a fire to cook.

And what does climate change sound like? “They begin to cry because they know there will be nothing to eat,” said Karani.

She offers them black tea so their stomachs can capture something, “but it tastes bitter without sugar, and they refuse it.”

Then she tells them Bible stories and sings to them. “Finally, they fall asleep.”

In the past, Karani’s half-acre farm that surrounds her home some 50 miles north of Nairobi has kept her family fed, at least to subsistence levels. Murang’a is known for rich soil and a favorable climate—in normal times.

But Kenya is just emerging from a brutal years-long drought that left Karani’s land dry and hardened without yield.

Add to that inflation and a weakened Kenyan shilling.

Karani and her husband both work pick-up jobs and often try to buy food on credit, but eventually shopkeepers say no.

Beneath a Sycamore Fig Tree, Waiting for Porridge

The bright spot in this picture is a new feeding program begun by Food4Education and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Fortified Whole Grain Alliance. Now Karani’s daughter Ruth, 4, gets morning porridge every school day.

The Murang’a County Governor and Food4Education co-created a 6-week pilot to diversify school meals and improve nutrition. The Fortified Whole Grain Alliance and The Rockefeller Foundation connected Food4Education to Capwell industries Limited and McKinsey & Company, who donated fortified whole grain flour and provided technical expertise respectively—inputs that contributed to the successful implementation.Upon the pilot’s completion, the Murang’a County governor was convinced of its value, and allocated funds to roll out the program to all 40,000 students at Early Childhood Development Centers.

“This fortified whole grain porridge program is an excellent demonstration of how philanthropic capital can be used to support program design for scaling by the government,” said Betty Kibaara, a Director of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food Initiative, Africa Regional Office. “Other county governments should emulate the model.”

Josephine Kadeni Karani stands and her daughter Ruth, 4, outside Gikuu Primary School in Marang'a County, Kenya. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)
  • Starting the fires for cooking porridge at Gikuu Primary School. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

Now, kitchen workers assemble just before dawn at Gikuu Primary School to light a fire and begin cooking. When it is ready, young children line up under a sycamore fig tree, leaning in toward the sweet smell of warm fortified whole grain porridge. They each receive a mugful.

The impact can last their entire lives.

“School meals are not just a means of nourishing one of the most critical and vulnerable populations,” says Peiman Milani, a Director of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food Initiative, Africa Regional Office. “They are also an opportunity to form lifelong healthy habits, and a key safety net in a context of growing food insecurity and hunger in many areas.”

Healthier and More Nutritious

Each fortified serving is more nutritious than traditional porridge, which is critically important in these formative years.

Whole maize flour, compared with the refined version, has 24 percent more protein, 3.8 times more fiber and 3.5 times more calcium, and is richer in iron, zinc and vitamin E.

One in ten children in Murang’a County under the age of 5 are stunted, with impaired development and growth due to poor nutrition, according to the Kenya Bureau of National Statistics 2022 report. Stunting is higher in rural areas and among poorer families, the report said.

Children line up for fortified whole grain porridge at Gikuu Primary School in Marang'a County, Kenya. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

Better for the Planet

Whole grain is also more sustainable for the planet. A 20 to 30 percent higher food yield is extracted with whole grain maizemeal from the same acre of land, said David Kamau, Managing Director of the Fortified Whole Grain Alliance.

Kamau grew thoughtful during a recent visit to Gikuu Primary School. “For the majority of children, this is the only meal they will have,” he said. “It is a simple project that is so impactful.”

  • Eating fortified whole grain uji at Vidhu Ramji Primary School in Murang'a. (Photo courtesy Yvonne Luseno)

Gikuu Kitchen Also Provides Uji to Nearby Schools

Food4Education uses a centralized cooking model, and Gikuu Primary is one of the county centers. Kitchen workers arrive at dawn to begin preparing the porridge, known as uji. Then three motorbike drivers transport the uji in silver cannisters to 17 nearby schools.

“This program targets early learners because these foundational years are critical for their long-term futures in terms of education, physical and emotional health,” said Ruth Muendo, Impact Manager for Food4Education. “We would like to follow them so we can measure the impact on their futures.”

A bonus is that the children love the taste of the Food4Education uji blend, produced by Capwell Industries Limited in nearby Thika. “Parents tell us very often that their children prefer our uji, which is a blend of maize and millet,” Muendo said.

  • Students at Vidhu Ramji Primary School in Murang’a County eat fortified wholegrain porridge. (Photo courtesy Yvonne Luseno)

Pharis Ng’ang’a is one of those satisfied parents. “When there is a drought, we parents are not able to give the students much to eat,” said Ng’ang’a, whose seven-year-old son Godfrey attends Gikuu Primary School. “The hot uji helps the children look forward to school and be able to concentrate. On Saturdays and Sundays, when my son doesn’t have the porridge, I can see the difference.”

Gikuu’s head teacher, Peter Maingi, agrees that the morning meal is helping “both school enrollment and student performance. Our students are far from the center and easier to overlook than students in the city,” he said. “And so we are grateful that our students have this. We would only like to see it available to the older students as well.”