RANIA -- We were driving from Erbil to the town of Rania in Sulaymaniah Governorate in Kurdistan Region. For the first time, I was about to meet some of the people we are trying to help.
It was exciting, but I was also nervous. Not because I thought I was likely to come to any harm - Kurdistan is stable and the authorities keep a very close eye on insurgent groups - but because I wasn't sure that the children would like what we were providing. The snacks WFP distributes under the school meals programme are 80-gramme date bars, a date-filled biscuit fortified with vitamins and micronutrients. It's not a substitute for a full meal, but a nutritious supplement, aimed at raising nutrition levels, helping children to concentrate at school and encouraging parents to send them there in the first place.
The Iraqi school meals programme, which is being carried out in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and with funding from the Iraqi Government, is targeted at children in the poorest districts of Sulaymaniyah, Wassit, Diyala and Ninewa Governorates. A total of 172,000 children will benefit from the pilot, with plans to expand next year to reach 960,000 children in the most vulnerable districts in 14 governorates.
When we got to the school in Rania, we were unprepared for the big welcome that had been arranged for us. Children in traditional Kurdish dress were singing songs and dancing. The press and TV had turned up for the occasion, as well as several officials from the Regional Ministry of Education. Fortunately, we had arrived just at the start of the mid-morning break, so the date bars could be handed out straight away.
So this was the moment of truth. The children seemed far too polite to spit the date bars out, but it would be plain to see if they didn't like them. After a few minutes of chewing, the verdict came out. The biscuits were okay - no, even good. Some were more enthusiastic than others.
Seven-year-old Saman* was too shy to comment, but he devoured his date bar in under 20 seconds and was looking round the table for more. Eight-year-old Sheerin said she thought they would be better with a walnut filling rather than date - this is a big walnut growing area - but she finished hers all the same. In fact, I did not see a single child abandon his or her snack. And the teaching staff all agreed that it had gone down well.
We left the school relieved and happy. Just as we were getting into our cars, I heard footsteps behind me. It was Saman. He whispered something I didn't understand and then pressed five walnuts into my hand.
*names have been changed for security reasons