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Fay Bushell (centre) and colleagues at the Inclusive Education Centre review a report on child nutrition.

Prison might be known for bread and water but when Fay Bushell was in charge, inmates got a decent meal. These days, however, it's school children whose diets she's concerned with.

Fay is based in Laos, on a two-year sabbatical from her job as operations manager of food services for the NSW Department of Corrective Services. She is working as a nutrition adviser for the Laotian Ministry of Education through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an Australian Government-AusAID initiative.

Laos is in the early stages of rolling out a national school meals program. The program is the legacy of a school feeding initiative launched by the World Food Programme in 2001, to treat acute malnutrition in school-aged children. But what began as the supply of cornflour-based snacks and 'take-home' rations for children is set to turn into a community-owned program that includes balanced school lunches, nutrition education and opportunities for local farmers to increase their income by selling produce to schools.

The program is now in the hands of the Inclusive Education Centre, a division of the Ministry of Education. As Fay explains, its primary purpose is to help children stay in school.

"If you don't eat you don't have the energy for your normal daily activities, let alone sitting in a classroom trying to learn. If children come to school it's an incentive that they can have lunch to eat.

"Also, a lot of students have to walk very far to get to school; if they had to walk home for lunch each day, most of them wouldn't come back to school in the afternoon.

"The purpose of this program is to increase the enrolment rate for students in primary school, reduce the drop-out rate and therefore improve overall education outcomes."

School lunches need to be nutritionally balanced to meet the needs of growing children. Meals provided in the pilot stage of the program include cooked rice, a portion of protein, and vegetables.

Fay's role is to offer nutrition training and advice to government staff involved the program, from national to provincial and district levels. Together they assess the nutritional quality of school meals and identify local produce and ingredients that schools can use.

"There's an abundance of food available at local markets but often that's not what's offered in schools," Fay says. "So now we're providing training to the people who do the menu planning, on what might be a good source of protein or a good source of carbohydrate. This could be a cabbage and buffalo meat stir-fry in one village, or we might swap the meat for peanuts in another village."

The program encourages villagers to donate or sell food to schools. The Inclusive Education Centre is building partnerships with the Ministry of Agriculture to increase farming knowledge, and with the Ministry of Health to increase understanding of nutrition within each community. The ultimate aim is to make the program sustainable at a village level, where all the food provided in schools is sourced from local farmers and growers.

Less than six months into her two-year assignment, Fay knows there's a long way to go before these outcomes are realised. But the relocation to a new country and the struggle to learn a new language are part of a challenge that she set for herself and her two young children, Maximus and Summer.

"This assignment really interested me and I have a passion for this work. Also, I was born in Thailand and wanted to bring my children back to experience the culture of this region. In a way it feels like a return home."

Photo: Bart Verweij