Our project partners often share with us their first hand experience with school feeding programmes and the benefits attributed to them. In this article, we would like to take a closer look at the scientific evidence behind such programmes. 

As malnutrition is a complex issue, influenced by a multitude of underlying factors, it is important to identify and analyse those factors, before implementing any kind of aid programme, to ensure its effectiveness. Especially in low and middle-income countries the causes for undernutrition can be attributed to different circumstances such as the individual, household, community, and even country level circumstances. Examples could be health status, or gender inequality on an individual level. Infections and undernutrition are strongly interdependent and every intervention must be treated holistically. Recurring infections not only contribute to weight loss and health deficiencies, but undernutrition also increases the overall risk of infections, leading to a vicious cycle hard to interrupt. Gender inequality may determine how food is allocated in the household, often leading to nutritional shortcomings for mothers. This not only affects their own health but also the health of their future offspring. On a national level, a countries' political or economic situation has a drastic impact on food security, affecting the amount and diversity of food available to each household. Therefore, to be successful, interventions must target multiple underlying factors at once, rather than following a singular or one-pointed approach.

Although school feeding programmes seem like a simple solution, to directly provide children with an additional daily meal, the pathways through which they function are complex. Whilst they directly decrease undernutrition, improving overall health, they also have an indirect effect on gender equality, household food security and the community as a whole.

In communities highly affected by food insecurity, where children are forced to go long periods of time without food, school meals can offer a regular additional meal, increasing the intake of nutrients essential for a child’s physical and mental development. This directly improves a child's nutritional status, overall health and additionally impacts a child’s education by reducing hunger and increasing cognitive ability.

A good example is the improvement of iron status. Iron deficiency - anaemia is a widespread issue amongst school aged children in many low and middle-income countries. As Iron is important for cognitive development, anaemia impairs a child’s cognitive function and thus is linked to poor learning outcomes. Providing a daily meal of nutrient rich food can increase overall iron status and as a result improve overall health and the quality of learning.

In communities impacted by extreme poverty, school attendance is often found to be low and dropout rates are high. In many cases families do not have the financial resources to send children to school or children have to find work to contribute to the family’s income. Furthermore, if a household struggles with food insecurity, children’s poor nutritional status affects their ability to concentrate and even stay awake in school. Research has shown that school feeding programmes not only improve a child’s ability to focus during class, but moreover can have a pulling effect to get children into school, leading to increased attendance and reduced drop-out rates. Additionally, it increases the years spent at school creating a better outlook for their future. As studies have shown, every additional year spent at school, increases individual and household income by an estimated 9%.

The time spent in school is found to increase the most with girls when food programmes are introduced, which indirectly improves gender equality and women empowerment, as it increases the opportunity for later employment. Evidence suggests that more years spent in education is directly linked with a increase in the average age of marriage for girls, fewer pregnancies and other common exploitations. Furthermore, educational achievements are proportionally linked to a risk reduction of contracting HIV. Therefore, time spent at school has a direct impact on girl’s health and a positive impact on their future.

On the household level, school feeding programmes have the greatest benefits for the poorest in the community. With school meals equating to 10% of a household’s income, they represent a great economic relief and contribute to crucial savings, especially for families with more then one child. However, the economic impact not only affects families but even whole communities. The money saved for meals can be redistributed on expenditure for other goods and so have a positive effect on the local economy. Furthermore, the creation of employment and additional income through these feeding programmes can also reduce poverty. Finally, as the primary need of such programmes is food, buying goods locally increases the income of small hold farmers, increases food security in the wider community, and stabilises the local markets as well as food supply systems.

Especially in crisis, school feeding programmes can act as important safety net, as we have seen during last year’s floods in Burundi, which resulted in loss of employment and agricultural production. These programmes protect the most vulnerable communities and even have the potential to strengthen a community’s resilience to disasters longer term.

In summary, well planned and executed school feeding programmes have the potential to result in a synergistic feedback loop between the factors outlined above, improving various underlying causes of undernutrition holistically.

Written by Ramona Engler, MA Nutrition for Global Health 

References:

Bundy, D. A. P., N. de Silva, S. Horton, D. T. Jamison, and G. C. Patton 2018. Re-Imagining School Feeding: A High-Return Investment in Human Capital and Local Economies. Washington, DC: World Bank. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO. Available from: Re-Imagining School Feeding: A High-Return Investment in Human Capital and Local Economies (dcp-3.org)

Lamis, J. H., McDonell, E., Probat, C., 2011. School feeding programs in developing countries: impacts on childrens health and educational outcomes. Nutrition Reviews, Volume 69, (2), 83-98. Available from: School feeding programs in developing countries: impacts on children's health and educational outcomes | Nutrition Reviews | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

Psacharopoulos, G., Patrinos, H.,  A., 2018. Returns to Investment in Education: A Decennial Review of the Global Literature. Policy Research Working Paper; No. 8402. World Bank, Washington. Available from: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29672 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO

WFP, 2020. A Chance for every Schoolchild – WFP School Feeding Strategy 2020 – 2030. Partnering to scale up School health and Nutrition for Human Capital. WFP. Available from: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000112101/download/?_ga=2.80716498.416875490.1609945096-1069362086.1602074585