Paul Tergat had so little to eat while growing up in rural Kenya that staying in class was a daily challenge. But when he was eight, the United Nations changed his life – and set him on the path to a glittering career in track and field that has brought him Olympic medals, global titles and a world record.
The World Food Programme (WFP) began distributing free school meals in Mr. Tergat’s home district in 1977, giving him an incentive to go to school and the energy to make the daily three-mile trek from his home in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
Now an Ambassador against Hunger for WFP, Mr. Tergat says he might have dropped out of school, like many of his classmates, and missed out on an education and the opportunity to nurture his athletic talent, but for the school feeding programme.
“I would say that it is true by the time I was ready to go to school, many of the kids from my region were unable to go to school. They instead went out to look for something to eat because where I come from it is very dry and rocky,” Mr. Tergat, now 41, told the UN News Centre yesterday.
Mr. Tergat, who won two Olympic silver medals and a record five consecutive World Cross Country Championships and set a world marathon record, has used his stature as one of the world’s best long distance runners to raise awareness and encourage support for the WFP’s school-feeding programmes.
“It is important that we give opportunities to young people just as I was given the opportunity by WFP. I am now giving back to the community and I want to see more children reach their full potential in terms of developing their careers and contributing to the world in general,” said Mr. Tergat, who is in New York for the UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The MDGs range from halving extreme poverty and reducing the proportion of hungry people by half, to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015.
“It is important that we achieve the MDGs – we can achieve healthy and educated nations,” Mr. Tergat said, adding that his presence at the summit led him to believe that there was a general consensus that the world must achieve the Goals. “But everybody needs to play their part,” he said.
According to WFP, $3.2 billion is required every year to feed 66 million schoolchildren worldwide. About $1.2 billion would enable the agency to feed 23 million children in Africa.
“The most important thing is to create awareness as a living example of what support for WFP can achieve,” said Mr. Tergat, who now mostly participates in motivational races to encourage young people to take up sport.