Monika Nikope / UNESCO

Healthy school meals are key to universal education and learning

Hungry children learn poorly. School feeding can play a key role in supporting cognitive performance, as those gathering at the first global summit of the School Meals Coalition discussed this week in Paris. Evidence of the positive effects of school feeding on the health and physical development of children, as well as their schooling, is confirmed by systematic reviews. This includes the benefits that India’s midday meal scheme – the world’s largest – brings to learning, especially for the most disadvantaged. In a cost–benefit analysis across 14 low- and middle-income countries, the education returns alone amounted to the equivalent of USD 156 billion, for a cost of USD 11 billion.

Feeding children at school, especially without charging families, serves as a significant attendance incentive for disadvantaged households. Strong efforts were made to continue operating school feeding programmes even while schools themselves were closed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the importance of school feeding in emergencies.

Even countries that have low capacity or struggle to implement teacher management or pedagogical reforms have successfully implemented large-scale school feeding programmes; their positive effects are relatively robust even for programmes with weak implementation. Unlike many interventions that require highly skilled technical staff or make large demands on teachers, school feeding tends to remain effective when scaled up.

There is a pressing need for further improvement

Some 73 million children in low- and middle-income countries live in extreme poverty with significant nutrition deficits. In sub-Saharan Africa, 32% of children, or almost one in three, are affected by stunting. In Central and Southern Asia, 14% of children are affected by wasting. At the same time, low- and middle-income countries are home to about 40 million overweight young children under 5 and 120 million children and adolescents who are obese. Hunger, malnutrition and obesity add up to a triple burden, and providing balanced meals at schools is an important part of relieving it.

Almost every country implements some kind of school feeding programme. In 2020, school feeding programmes reached 388 million, or about one in two schoolchildren, an indicator that is going to be monitored closely, as it was added earlier this year to the list of SDG 4 thematic indicators. Unfortunately, the coverage is lowest in low-income countries. Whereas most programmes in upper-middle-income countries reach the majority of children, more narrowly targeted programmes are more commonplace in low- and lower-middle-income countries, those countries with the greatest need.

School feeding programmes face many challenges

School meals have only a limited effect on malnutrition if they are not sufficiently nutritious. Not all foodstuffs are equally nutritious, nor are all combinations of nutrients equally valuable for growing children. At the same time, food ingredients differ in their seasonal availability, nutrient density and price. With poor regulation and cost cutting, many countries’ programmes are using more ultra-processed foods.

Modern nutrition science provides guidance on combining foods in meals that offer variety and a cost-efficient way to growing children’s calorie and nutritional needs. The most promising approach is to fortify staples that are routinely consumed by most people. Nutritional considerations are a critical part of the school feeding process, but 23 low- and middle-income countries have not published official nutrition guidelines for school meals.

Home-grown school feeding approaches aim to integrate school meals into agricultural development and poverty reduction. They aim to connect local smallholder or family farmers to schools and school communities. A background paper for our Spotlight report looked at a successful home-grown and locally purchased school feeding program in Madagascar that helped improve foundational learning for instance. Farmers benefitted from a predictable buyer and the opportunity for greater investment, and food was transported over shorter distances, resulting in multiple sustainable development gains.

The integration of smallholders and schools into local food supply chains can be facilitated by the judicious use of technology, such as in transportation, tagging and monitoring logistics, and increasing transparency. Logistics are also important for hygiene. Almost a third of the global population is affected annually by foodborne illnesses. The lack of cold-chain technology limits the use of fish in several countries, including Angola, Honduras, Peru and even in island states such as Sao Tome and Principe. Where home-grown school food programmes use produce from non-commercial family farms, they must be monitored for compliance with hygiene practices, as contamination of meat and fish is not uncommon, as documented, for instance, in Brazil.

Many schools lack basic infrastructure, including for cooking. Across school feeding programmes in low- and middle-income countries, only some 40% of schools hosting the programmes have kitchens. A lack of suitable infrastructure at schools can be overcome either by centralized preparation of meals that are then distributed to schools or by providing dry snacks such as biscuits. Nutritious meals made from locally sourced, fresh ingredients can be prepared in large central kitchens implementing recognized food safety standards. A centralized model has been successfully applied by the award-winning initiative Food4Education in Kenya, which has four kitchens and the capacity to cater to up to 30,000 children every day. At the schools, the subsidized price for a meal is charged to a tap-to-pay wristband that families can recharge using mobile payment systems.

Food is directly or indirectly responsible for a substantial part of global carbon emissions, both food eaten and food wasted. School food that goes to waste is both an unnecessary environmental burden and missed nutrition. Especially for children, food must be made palatable. A study in Ghana showed that disadvantaged children with no other options might choose to go hungry if they dislike the school food being served. Aligning with the local food culture is also important to encourage children to develop cooking skills at school. Eating food, even good food, does not necessarily educate learners about food the way food preparation might. Since at least 2006, the World Health Organization framework for addressing nutrition-related health problems in the school environment has adopted a holistic view beyond school feeding itself to include nutrition policy, awareness-raising and training, and a curriculum and school environment supportive of good nutrition.

The links between nutrition and education are hard to ignore. We will be exploring the topic in greater depth in the second paper of a new series we are launching next month on the connections between education and the sustainable development goals. Watch this space.


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