Learning and good nutrition are partners for healthy growth and development. Children cannot learn well on an empty stomach. School feeding programs help the neediest, providing children not only food but also an incentive to go to school. School feeding programs are implemented in almost all countries worldwide, where they reach 20 percent of all children every day (1).
School feeding programs have broader and longer-lasting effects than just giving children a meal. Carefully designed programs can address widespread nutrient deficiencies. They support educational outcomes in the long term and help to encourage school attendance for both boys and girls. Families and communities also benefit from school feeding plans. When locally sourced, school feeding lifts local economies (2).
What are school feeding programs?
School feeding programs are diverse in format however they all provide food to school-aged children at school. Examples of school feeding programs include cooked meals for breakfast or lunch, snacks such as micronutrient-fortified biscuits, or providing families with rations that are taken home from school. There may be several programs in place in one country. Participation in these programs is generally free-of-charge to students and their families. Governments often fund school feeding programs though public-private partnerships, which are becoming more common (1). NGOs such as the World Food Programme provide school meals to children in crisis situations and with high food insecurity (3).
Health and nutrition
First and foremost, school meals fill hungry tummies. School children are nutritionally vulnerable. They are not just little adults: children and adolescents have their own specific nutrient needs to realize their potential (4). In middle childhood, children’s growth and development consolidates. During the adolescent growth spurt, nutrient needs increase as muscles, bones and organs grow. Late adolescence is a time of further consolidation as children transition to adulthood.
A well-designed school meal program provides nutrients needed for growth such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, and the micronutrients. Multi-fortified foods such as biscuits or porridge are a cost-effective way to ensure school children receive adequate vitamin and minerals (5). Prepared meals eaten at school provide dietary variety. School-based meals have been shown to improve the growth of children in low- and middle-income countries (4, 6).
School meals both encourage school attendance, and help children learn when they are at school. Many children around the world go to bed hungry due to poverty. Around 20 percent of children in low-income countries do not attend school (4). A school meal program encourages children out of school to attend because they are guaranteed a snack or meal. Studies have found that the proportion of children attending school increases if a school meal program is introduced (2).
Children learn better if their hunger is satisfied. School performance is improved and children and have a longer attention span when they have had a school meal or snack (7). Both short-term hunger and long-term consequences of under-nutrition such as iron deficiency anaemia affect attention, motivation at school and cognitive performance (7).
The safety net provided by school meals can be substantial for low-income households (2). For families that spend a large proportion of their income on food, the meal provided for their children at school reduces the family’s overall food needs. Regular school meals can help bridge times when food or income is lacking. A steady supply of school meals eases seasonal fluctuations in the cost of food or family income changes.
School meal programs can also be a source of employment for local families. The World Food Programme’s “Home Grown School Feeding” framework encourages the involvement of local communities in school meal programmes. This creates employment opportunities to deliver, prepare and serve school meals. The involvement of local communities in school meal program implementation creates a sense of ownership that contributes to the social safety net.
Local economies and agriculture
Local farmers and people working in the supply chain benefit when food is sourced locally for school meals. This is especially the case with established school meal programs, which provide a reliable source of income for the community. Families often benefit in many ways, because their children receive the school meals and an education, and also through income from the school meal program.
Raising awareness of the importance of nutritious school meal programs is the first step in helping children – of all backgrounds and with varying resources – realize their fullest potential.
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