In September 2021, after multiple pandemic lockdowns, children returned to school and preschools (known in Palestine as kindergartens). Kindergarten students in eight of the most marginalized communities in Gaza started the new year with fresh, healthy meals provided by MECA through the PaliRoots Meal Program. PaliRoots.com is an online business and a community that receives thousands of donations from customers and through highly successful social media campaigns.
It is frightening to report that a third of children in Gaza suffer from malnutrition. The decades-long Israeli occupation has devastated the economy and the Israeli blockade of Gaza, now in its fourteenth year, has created an artificial shortage of some foods. Many kids are either experiencing, or at risk for, stunted growth and developmental problems. The goal of the PaliRoots Meal Program is to offer meals that are high in protein and calories and that provide at least 44 percent of children’s need for iron. The program provides income for women in the local areas who shop for and prepare the meals. As a nutritionist, I oversee the program and provide workshops for mothers about getting the most nutritious food for their families. Children will be assessed and, when necessary, treated at a local nutrition clinic.
We already see signs of success on the ground. In kindergartens where we have implemented this project, the number of students has doubled. The children seem excited to go to school, knowing they will have a tasty, hot meal. They ask what tomorrow’s food will be, and eagerly line up in the yard for meals.
The children’s happiness extends beyond the food. The children seem to feel reassured that there are people who love and care for them. In a particularly touching moment, I saw one child hug the nutritionist who entered the room carrying meals of rice and chicken.
But I also cannot forget the face of a child from Al-Fawares Kindergarten, who was holding a plate of meatballs and asked me what it was. I know that poverty in Gaza is increasing and becoming deeper, but still I was shocked to discover that there really are children who have never eaten meat before.
I can only hope that as a result of our program, more and more mothers will report experiences like the one this mother described: “My son never used to eat, but today he eats a full meal with his classmates, and I see his face is bright.”