To mark World Food Day last week, Carmen Burbano of the United Nations World Food Programme looks at new evidence of the huge benefits of feeding children at school.
Education has huge benefits for nutrition, as the EFA Global Monitoring Report team’s Education Transforms booklet shows. If all mothers had primary education, we could save 1.7 million children from being stunted, or short for their age. The connection works the other way, too, and nowhere is this clearer than in the benefits of providing children with meals at school in parts of the world where hunger is a daily reality.
Mothers all over the world have told me how much peace of mind they get from knowing their child will have a school meal. Now we have evidence to show that school meals are also a good investment. The United Nations World Food Programme’s recently released report State of School Feeding Worldwide finds that finds that for every dollar spent on school feeding, at least three are gained in the form of various economic returns.
School feeding has numerous benefits. By boosting education, it breaks the intergenerational cycle of hunger and malnutrition. School meals help make children healthy, providing them with the micronutrients they need to develop and learn. And educated mothers are more likely to ensure their children are well nourished.
Worldwide, 368 million children receive a meal at school every day, with an annual investment estimated at US$75 billion. WFP supports governments in reaching 7% of these children – about 25 million in 2012 – mostly in low income countries, where school feeding coverage is lowest and needs are greatest.
In emergencies and in times of crisis, school feeding is one of the best safety nets. It brings a touch of normality when families are forced to flee their homes, as we have been able to see with Syrians in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Knowing their children will be fed at school can help parents to rebuild their lives after an earthquake, as we saw in Haiti.
Because they represent a huge market for produce, school meals can also make a difference for communities, for the livelihoods of farmers, and for the creation of small businesses, many of them run by women. The agriculture team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided leadership in helping women benefit from the school feeding market, especially through support to the Purchase For Progress programme of WFP and the Home Grown School Feeding Programme of the Partnership for Child Development.
Partners like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Brazil are also supporting with initiatives like the Purchasing from Africans for Africa, which aims to support countries in making the link between school feeding and local agricultural production.
But providing meals alone is not enough. The schools where WFP works often lack proper classrooms, teachers who are trained, and textbooks. That is why WFP has embarked on an enhanced partnership with UNICEF and UNESCO – the Nourishing Bodies, Nourishing Minds initiative – to remove barriers that prevent children learning. That means expanding access to early childhood care and education; improving enrolment rates of girls in school, particularly adolescent girls; and working with communities to build environments conducive to learning.
WFP is also working with partners to help countries develop sustainable school meal programmes. Drawing on the success of Brazil in developing one of the world’s largest school meal programmes, WFP opened a Centre of Excellence Against Hunger, in partnership with Brazil, in 2011. The Centre is a hub for knowledge sharing to inspire governments to invest in school meals.
Governments increasingly understand that poor families struggling to put food on the table sometimes have to decide between sending their child to school or to work in the fields. Strong school feeding programmes can sway those parents towards a choice that will nourish rather than limit their child’s potential.
Carmen Burbano, a policy officer and school feeding specialist at the United Nations World Food Programme, is lead author of State of School Feeding Worldwide (2013).