“Feed me, please…I want to learn!”

Children who go to school hungry are more likely to have poor classroom behavior and low academic achievement. Effective school feeding programs can improve both education and health outcomes.

August 06, 2013 by Tara O'Connell
11 minutes read
Credit: GPE/Tara O’Connell

Alenna is a second grader at Santa Rosa Primary School in Guyana's hinterlands. When asked about her school's meal program, Alenna smiles and says it is really good because she is never hungry at school and so she can concentrate on things like learning to read. Alenna is one of 16,000 school children who benefit from Guyana's Community-Based School Feeding Program, supported by GPE. She is happy, healthy, and learning.

No food = no learning

More than 60 million children globally go to school hungry each day. Many more begin with a modest breakfast but, after a long walk to school, arrive in class with an empty belly. The links between short-term hunger and poor classroom behavior and academic achievement are well substantiated.

Without a nutritious meal, cognition is significantly impaired, lethargy is typical, and learning is impeded. So, while a child may be in school, without food in her belly, she will not learn.

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connel

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connell

The good news is that many countries have begun to successfully address such short term hunger — and to improve education and health outcomes in the process — by implementing effective school feeding programs. GPE supports countries like Guyana in their efforts.

Guyana pursues Education For All

Guyana joined GPE in 2002 and received its first three-year grant of $12 million in 2004. The grant supported Guyana in pursuing the goal of universal primary education by 2015. The implementation of a community-based school feeding program was an important element of the program. In 2008, having shown successful execution with measurable results, Guyana received a second 3-year GPE grant for an overall total of $32.5 million.

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connel

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connell

The majority (97%) of Guyana's population of approximately 800,000 people lives in urban areas, rural coastal areas, or in communities bordering Guyana's major rivers. The remaining 3% of Guyana's population, primarily indigenous Amerindians, live in the four interior administrative regions that comprise the hinterlands. The hinterlands consist of rainforest, savannah, deep riverine and mountainous topography, with many small and remote communities reachable only by boat or air.

The hinterlands have higher levels of poverty and higher mortality rates than the national average. Children in hinterland communities have higher rates of stunting, and face lower health and education indicators overall.

Guyana's national policies have long supported expansion of access to quality education for all children. However, as population density was and remains focused in urban and coastland regions, these regions have benefited disproportionately from improvements to the provision of education services, creating a measurable gap in comparison to the quality of services delivered in the hinterlands.

World Bank and GPE support Guyana's education goals in the hinterlands

To address this reality, Guyana's Ministry of Education partnered with the World Bank to develop and implement a community-based school feeding program focusing on Guyana's hinterland regions and financed by the GPE grants. The program had an overall annual cost of GYD610.5 million (US$3 million), with approximately GYD$550 million (US$2.7 million) for the provision of food stuffs, and GYD60.5 million (US$300,000) for training, monitoring, and other operational costs each year.

Kitchen in Guyana school

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connell

The program has a strong focus on sustainability and incorporates capacity building at all levels of the feeding program – planning, preparation, procurement, distribution, storage. All stakeholders taking part in the program (e.g. cooks, treasurers of the school feeding committees, teachers, and others) have been supported with extensive training from relevant experts within the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and, in some cases, the Ministry of Agriculture. Part of this training involves how best to exploit locally-grown and available produce for the maximum nutritional composition in each meal. The use of locally-available foods and the hiring of cooks and other staff from the school community have fostered a strong sense of community-ownership in the school feeding program. This community ownership has had the intended result of the school and community working closer together in a strategic partnership for the sustainable improvement of children's education.

Daily meals for 16,000 students

The school feeding program operates in 92 schools in the hinterland regions, which have been providing school lunches to all students on a daily basis, using local produce, keeping systematic and precise records, and certifying cooks under the program. In addition, 58 schools have received small grants to support efforts at making the school feeding program sustainable at the school-level, for example by raising chickens or cattle and then selling them and investing funds back into the program.

Overall, the program benefits approximately 16,000 children. A number of pre-school children who attend primary schools where the feeding program takes place have also benefited from school meals.

Better nutrition means better health and improved learning

Children eating in Guyana school

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connell

Since its establishment, the school feeding program has been well-monitored and evaluated, with data gathered on an annual basis and with baselines facilitating the monitoring of impact over time. An evaluation carried out by the World Bank and the Guyana Ministry of Education between 2007 and 2009 has shown remarkable results. School enrollment has increased by 16% within two years (2007-2009) in the schools taking part in the school feeding program compared to a decline in enrollment of 7.5% in coastland schools that had not participated in the program. Attendance at participating schools also grew by between 2% and 4.3% over the two year evaluation period.

The evaluation also showed that student scores in science, social studies, English, and math were higher for students benefiting from school feeding when compared with their peers in non-participating schools. English scores for the most severely stunted children in participating schools increased from 37 points to 48 points, while they rose less markedly for children in non-participating schools, from 40 to 43 points. On average, math scores of students taking part in the feeding program were 8.1 points higher than those of children in the non-participating students. Reading and social studies scores were also higher for children taking part in the feeding program compared to non-participating peers, measuring an average of 4.2 points and 4 points higher respectively.

The evaluation also pointed to the program's impact on the nutritional status of students in participating schools, where children grew 0.8 centimeters more than students of schools not involved in the program.

The school feeding program has been associated with higher levels of student activity in class and parental activity in school. Community participation in fundraising and other school activities contributing to the quality of the school feeding program has increased dramatically. Parents in schools with the feeding program regularly participate in cooking, cleaning and serving meals, as well as monitoring students' performance. A modest improvement in household diets has also been noted where the school feeding program has been operating.

Another positive outcome of the school feeding program was the creation of strong linkages between various line ministries including the ministries of Education, Health, and Agriculture, in the delivery of the feeding program and associated training. These valuable linkages have increased the likelihood of sustainability and have decreased unnecessary and costly duplication of efforts.

Looking Ahead

School grocery list Guyana

Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connell

Guyana's school feeding program is now recognized as a global good practice and is providing a tangible example –albeit on a small scale—of the cost-effective delivery of a targeted program aimed at equitable provision of quality education services. The program has been praised as an example of ensuring the promotion of children's health as a key underlying element for quality learning. In late 2012, a Peruvian delegation visited Guyana to learn from these efforts and evaluate how Peru might develop and implement a similar program tailored for Peru's context.

The Guyana Community-Based School Feeding Program is an excellent example of partnership at work. Given the program's achievements, the government of Guyana has committed to financing the school feeding program past the closing of the GPE grant and has demonstrated this commitment by including costing for the program in its 2013 budget.

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