World Food Programme’s Deputy Regional Director for Asia and Pacific, Anthea Webb talks to Kuensel’s Jigmi Wangdi about WFP’s assistance and future programmes in line with the new 13th Plan

Can you share your experience of meeting the farmer groups in Punakha? 

I was delighted to meet one of the heads of the farmers’ groups that have been set up as part of this new initiative. A woman who is running a farm. She is growing not just rice but a variety of crops which are both more nutritious and also more profitable, so she has greater control over her livelihood. She’s better able to withstand pests or other shocks that sometimes affect farms and she is recognised as a leader in her community. 

It was very clear to me that the others in the farmer group looked up to her for leadership and she brought her special brand of leadership and listening and collaborating with the other members of the group that was very encouraging to see and I believe she will be an important example for other women across the country. 

Our understanding is that we now have enough to eat, but we don’t eat enough nutrient-rich food. WFP has been working on this for some time now. What is the progress? 

The proudest moment for us is when we can hand over a programme to a government and they will continue providing it with the same quality if not more and that has been the case here in Bhutan where the government has taken up ownership and running of the school meal programme, which is one of our flagships worldwide. 

Our work with the government now is to make sure that the meals that are delivered are of the highest possible nutritional value that children not only receive a meal but understand and appreciate the importance of healthy nutritious diets and that the food is produced in a way which is safe and nutritious and at the lowest possible cost. One of the most important changes that we’re working on together is so that local farmers can benefit from the programme also by supplying fresh food and vegetables and other products to those schools. So, you end up with a virtuous cycle of benefit both for the students and for the local community.

We have been able to ensure that the food is stored in a very clean and sanitary way, so there’s no waste. The children are also consuming rice which has been fortified, in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, yoghurt, and eggs. They are receiving those vitamins and minerals as part of the rice that they consume and all of that was purchased from the local area. 

What is going to happen in this area?

It would be extraordinarily helpful if fortified rice was available more widely. A lot of work has been done to put in place the rules and the standards so that the quality is of the highest and that it meets all of the international as well standards of food safety and quality. 

There are still some challenges in the Bhutanese people’s nutrition where very important micronutrients like iron, Vitamin B and other essential minerals are still not necessarily present or easily obtained in ordinary people’s diets. So, by adding those to rice which so many people consume even outside of the school meal program, it should be possible to reduce some of those challenges that people are still facing.

The WFP is currently working on its new country strategic plan 2024-2028. What are the priorities for Bhutan?

There are three main areas of priority. The first one is to continue the work which is to build a very strong foundation for school meals and nutrition including branching out into working with young people on how the choices that they make for their diets, so that they can continue to eat healthy meals even after school.

The second is to encourage the agricultural sector and farmers to focus on crops that are both more nutritious and also more profitable and which are better able to withstand the kind of changes that the climate is undergoing. We know that the weather has changed a lot even this year. 

We’ve seen it here in Bhutan and farmers are really at high risk. So, we’re going to be working with them to try and achieve a much more resilient approach to food and nutrition that also benefits them and the economy in a way that is a circular process.

The last one is to try and put in place the systems so that the people and government are ready in case there is a big emergency. So far, the country has been very blessed not to have to deal with a massive challenge – be it earthquakes and another massive flood or other kinds of drought or fire, but they will happen. Unfortunately, what we see across the region is the increasing likelihood and increasing strength of those kinds of events when they take place.

We would like to work with the De-suung and the Department of Disaster Management to help and be as ready as possible to respond to reduce the impact of disasters so that people can get back to their life as soon as possible after that disaster strikes. No one wants to see a reversal in progress, but we know from other countries in the region that you can’t rule it out. So, the best thing we can do is to be prepared.