School meals support education: Examples of programs in Mongolia, Guatemala and Chad

Programs that provide students with regular meals in school have proven impacts on short and long-term health outcomes as well as academic performance. See three examples in Mongolia, Guatemala and Chad as part of GNCF's global survey 2021.

March 28, 2023 by Tori Spivey, Global Child Nutrition Foundation
4 minutes read
Children sit at their desk at the El Renacimiento Municipal School, Villa Nueva, Guatemala. Credit: Maria Fleischmann / World Bank
Children sit at their desk at the El Renacimiento Municipal School, Villa Nueva, Guatemala.
Credit: Maria Fleischmann / World Bank

School feeding programs, in the form of an in-school meal, snack or take-home ration, have been shown to have a positive impact on learning outcomes, particularly for students in low-income settings.

These programs provide students with regular meals while they are in school, with the aim of improving short and long-term health outcomes and academic performance.

Kitchen in a school in Mongolia. Credit: GPE / Lina Benete
Kitchen in a school in Mongolia.
GPE / Lina Benete

The Mongolian case

School feeding programs improve learning outcomes by ensuring that students have the nutrients, and therefore the energy, they need to focus at school. Malnutrition can have a significant impact on cognitive and physical development, making it difficult for children to concentrate and engage in the classroom.

To ensure the student nutritional needs are met, the School Lunch Program in Mongolia ensures nutritionists are involved in their school feeding program. Health interventions and physical education complement the program’s objectives surrounding nutrition.

Regular school meals can help to ensure that children have the nutrition they need to grow into healthy, educated adults.

Getting kids fed (and in the classroom) in Guatemala

One of the primary objectives of the school feeding program (Programa de Alimentación Escolar) in Guatemala is to meet educational goals. Providing students with an in-school snack 5 times per week and take-home rations occasionally, this program reached over 2.5 million preschool and primary school students in the 2020 school year.

School feeding is a top priority for the government of Guatemala in 2023, evidenced by an announcement to expand to over 36,000 educational centers, increasing coverage to over 3.1 million students.

As research has shown that school feeding programs can have a positive impact on student attendance and retention rates, this robust provision of food at school acts as an incentive for students to regularly attend classes.

When children receive adequate nutrition during their early years, with the eventual goal of the first 8,000 days, they grow up to be healthier, more productive adults, and with the benefit of a school meal, more educated as well.

Girls lead the way in Chad

Girls are often disproportionately affected by poverty and food insecurity, which can limit their access to education.

Providing free or subsidized meals at school can reduce the financial burden on families as both boys and girls get at least one meal outside of the home. School meals encourage parents to send their daughters to school.

In Chad, the Support Program for Primary Education and Girls’ Schooling (Programme d’appui à l’enseignement primaire et à la scolarisation des filles) aims at narrowing gender disparities; the program provides take-home rations for girls in certain grades that attend at least 80% of school days and provides cash transfers to households of adolescent girls.

In sum, the presence of a meal at school has been shown to dramatically increase the enrollment and retention numbers of female students. Girls who stay in school are more likely to delay marriage and childbirth, lead healthier lives, and have higher earning potential, contributing greatly to the overall development of a country.

Key data from the analysis of Chad school meals programs
Key data from the analysis of Chad school meals programs

Contextualizing school meals programs

It’s important to note that successful implementation of school feeding programs requires careful planning and consideration of local context and needs. More research is needed on the effects of school feeding programs in general, but especially on the tradeoffs of different designs.

Food preferences and local availability combined with the specific nutritional needs of children at different developmental stages must be accounted for in each context.

Prioritizing a recognition of cultural norms at the start may be more successful in promoting long-term sustainability and strong community buy-in.

School feeding programs have the potential to improve life outcomes for students worldwide.

Done well, they help students have the nutrition they need to focus and engage in the classroom, resulting in improved educational attainment and lifelong health outcomes.

By investing in school feeding programs and improving their effectiveness, we can help ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn, grow and reach their full potential.

Read the report: School Meals Programs around the World

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Read blogs from our series on the role of school meals in improving access to education and learning.

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