With food and fuel prices soaring, protests on Sri Lanka ’s streets and her debt-saddled country engulfed by political crisis, Geethika Dilrukshi’s urgent priority each day was to provide nutrition for her underweight five-year-old son. But over recent weeks, her son has slowly got heavier, like other malnourished kids at his preschool after receiving a full daily meal for free from a community kitchen for preschoolers. Last month, year-on-year food inflation hit 95 per cent, meaning millions of families have had to forgo basics, while putting the onus on Sri Lanka’s civil society to fill the void left by the state. More than 6.2 million people from Sri Lanka are estimated to be moderately acute food insecure, according to a September report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Food Programme, while tens of thousands are in immediate need of assistance. Sri Lanka and the IMF have agreed a way forward. But what about the people? For Dilrukshi, her son’s weight chart shows what the community kitchen which supports his preschool – Kids Dream World in Ampitiya, outside Kandy City – has achieved where the government has failed. “My son was underweight from birth, but since he started receiving this meal, he has been steadily gaining about 300g per month,” Dilrukshi says, explaining meat and fish are now a luxury for her family. But her son has “reached normal weight”, thanks to the extra meal he receives at school. On the surface, Sri Lanka appears to have regained a level of stability from the crippling fuel shortages and political upheaval which erupted in July. But the country is still plagued by political turmoil, as the political party of the powerful but unpopular Rajapaksa clan is still holding onto power, through a government helmed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Iromi Perera, director of the Sri Lankan think tank, Colombo Urban Lab, says that in the capital city the urban poor are now down to “bare bones” when it comes to food. “There is a lot of [food-related] guilt and stress, especially in households with children,” she says. Roughly over a year ago, before the economic crisis began, these families consumed a fairly diverse diet with lots of protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, but now they worry about how to provide adequate nutrition to the children, or how to feed them [at all], Perera says. Sri Lankan trans community cut off from life-saving therapy amid crisis As the food security situation deteriorated, private organisations conjured up ways to help; from the distribution of dry rations and food vouchers, to community kitchens. The community kitchen which feeds Kids Dream World was established by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, an organisation focused on grass roots development in Sri Lanka since 1958. First established to build roads in remote areas overlooked by the government, it is now a nationwide network running community-led programmes reaching the most isolated corners of the island nation. The latest scheme is the network of community kitchens to help feed children under five years of age, identified as the most vulnerable for nutrition insecurity. Data-driven interventions Sarvodaya used data from a survey conducted by the Medical Research Institute of Sri Lanka with WHO and Unicef, to find out who are the most vulnerable age groups and where the food crisis is at its most pernicious. “A number of reports note that parents are unable to provide three meals for their child, so we decided to intervene at least until the economy improves,” says Dr Vinya Ariyaratne, specialist in community medicine and the president of Sarvodaya. Sarvodaya has so far set up more than 110 community kitchens attached to preschools in eight districts, including Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Matale, Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. “If a district’s food insecurity is more than 25 per cent, that means one in four households are unable to provide a proper meal. We selected these districts,” Ariyaratne says. The risks of poor nutrition to preschoolers are serious, with critical brain development taking place within their first 1,000 days, he adds. This led Sarvodaya to specifically target children under five years of age, with preschools within the worst affected districts chosen as the locations to get better nutrition to vulnerable kids and then monitor the impact. The Kids Dream World has around 30 children aged between 2.5 and 5 years, belonging to mixed economic backgrounds. Before the community kitchen started, there were around three children who regularly arrived at the preschool without a meal, says the headmistress, Pramila Naomi. Since the meal programme began in May, more children were enrolled at the preschool. The only one offering a midday meal for miles from an open kitchen is located on the school’s rooftop where each day a few of the mothers volunteer to cook the day’s meal on a wood fire. “On most days, part of the meal is made with vegetables, greens, and fruits grown in parents’ home gardens,” Naomi says. In Sri Lanka, period poverty means deciding between pads and food In Sri Lanka, midwives attached to the country’s public health system visit preschools, tracking the height and weight of children up to five years of age. Before the community kitchen started, the area midwife used to arrive at Naomi’s school only once every three months. Now, she arrives every month, to track the height and weight of the children alongside the ongoing nutrition programme. “Each month, we observed the weight of the children increasing by 100g to 150g on average,” Naomi says. On the day of the visit, baby jackfruit and pennywort leaves for the salad were added to the menu from home gardens, served with rice, dhal and fried sprats, to make a balanced meal, served warm to the children. To reduce costs further, wood fuels the fire – and the parents do their bit by bringing a few dry branches up to the rooftop where the cooks for the day take over. Short on funding A few of the children with younger siblings get to take an extra meal home, and pregnant mothers – another group vulnerable to nutritional insecurity– are also provided with meals. “We have seen this meal programme’s value. If it can be given to all the preschools it would create even better value,” Naomi says. But funds are limited, and may run out soon, she says, making it difficult to guarantee the existing meal programme. The kitchen had provided lunch even to the older siblings of its pupils, but a lack of funds stopped that. Perera notes that while community kitchens and meal drives can help with the nutritional crisis to some extent, these are not really long term solutions, but it fills the gap left open by the state. “It is not easy to continuously raise funds to continue with community kitchens, especially as ingredients get more and more expensive, and cost per meal keeps going up,” she says. Community kitchens are also mostly dependent on women’s labour, whether at school level or at community level – they require women to volunteer their time to do the cooking and other tasks. “So, this may add an additional burden on the women, if they are also involved in livelihood-related or care work,” Perera says. At Kids Dream World, a meal costs 100 Sri Lankan rupees (about 30 US cents), provided that some vegetables are supplemented from a parent’s home garden. But there are fears that asking parents to shoulder the full cost of the community kitchen is too much of a burden for hard-pressed families. Dilrukshi’s husband is a government employee and earns about 50,000 rupees per month (US$140), most of which goes towards repaying a house loan, which then forces restrictions on the diet of her family as food prices spike. “We have not bought milk powder for the past five months or so. We only eat meat or fish once a week or once a fortnight,” she says. “Even sugar is used sparingly, and sometimes given only to the children.” Headmistress Naomi says the school needs a sponsor to keep the kitchen alive and feed one community of many beset by Sri Lanka’s worst economic and political upheaval in living memory. After all, the children “look forward to having a warm meal”, she says. That is true for Dilrukshi’s three-year-old younger son, who does not yet attend preschool, but still receives a meal from the community kitchen. “Every day, he waits for his older brother to come home. He asks whether there is food,” she says.