Why all the talk about school meals?

The benefits of school meal programs are legion, and we can only rejoice at the enthusiasm to see more countries implement them. However, two things are still needed to continue ensuring children have the nourishment they need to learn, grow and thrive.

February 13, 2023 by Carmen Burbano de Lara, World Food Programme
4 minutes read
Children having a meal at school. Ghana. Credit: Arne Hoel/The World Bank
Children having a meal at school. Ghana.
Credit: Arne Hoel/The World Bank

The world is amid a food crisis of unprecedented proportions with a record 345 million people across 82 countries facing acute food insecurity. Around half of these are children under 18 years of age.

Countries, rich and poor alike, are debating how to protect school children from the hunger crisis. If you’re interested in education, this should be at the top of your list of concerns because no matter how much the world invests in classrooms, teachers, textbooks and access to internet, kids will not learn if they are hungry.

School meal programs are among the largest and most effective social safety nets - about 388 million children and their families depend on them every day. They get children to school, especially girls, and prevent them from dropping out as they get older. They also improve learning outcomes by providing better and more nutritious diets and address some of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in children.

Their benefits don’t stop there. The programs also support local economies and create jobs in communities. In South Africa, for instance, the program provides jobs to about 62,000 food handlers, most of them women, who are hired to prepare and supply food to schools.

Globally, about 1,700 jobs are created for every 100,000 children fed.

In many countries, school feeding is the largest source of government procurement of food. Making these meals more sustainable can help reduce national greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable agricultural practices.

The Brazilian program caters to more than 40 million students, with 50 million daily meals. By law, a minimum 30% of the annual budget of US$764 million must be used to purchase food from smallholder farmers, creating a local agricultural market of at least US$229 million.

Recently, there is more discussion about school meals in the media and global platforms because of the School Meals Coalition. In 2021, the Coalition was created by a group of countries led by France and Finland to ensure that every child can receive a healthy, nutritious meal in school by 2030.

Political leaders from 76 countries, representing all economic levels and 58%of the world’s population, have joined the Coalition in less than a year, making it one of the most successful country-led mobilizations. Together with 82 development partners, Coalition countries are delivering unprecedented results:

  • Rwanda, for example, has increased its domestic budget for school meals from US$ 8 million in 2020 to US$ 80 million in 2022 in effort to boost its human capital, increasing coverage from 660,000 children in 2020 to 3.8 million students in 2022.
  • Benin made a commitment to increase the budget from US$ 79 million to US$ 240 million in the next five years. Coverage of Benin’s program has increased, reaching 75% of schoolchildren in 2022, with plans to reach 100% in 2023. Food bought locally has increased from 20% in 2020, to 70% in 2022.
  • Malawi, Niger and Ethiopia are increasing the amount of food purchased from smallholder farmers and are providing cash transfers to schools with the help of Norway.
  • Benin, Burundi, Ghana, Honduras, Rwanda and India are working with the Rockefeller Foundation to develop and test approaches to shift towards more nutritious options for school meals, which improve learning, boost local economic opportunity and increase environmental sustainability.

Globally, about 90% of the costs of the school feeding programs are supported through domestic funds and even low-income countries do their best to sustain their programs, covering 30%of the costs.

As part of the School Meals Coalition, Rwanda and Kenya are developing domestic financing plans to strengthen their national programs. This includes a comprehensive, multi-year costing of the program, a financing landscape analysis and a strategy to increase domestic financing through innovative approaches.

All of this is good news and the Coalition’s momentum continues to grow, giving us cause for optimism. But two things are needed to continue ensuring children have the nourishment they need to learn, grow and thrive.

First, there is a need for more multisectoral coordination at all levels because for the school feeding program to deliver its full potential, at least five sectors are needed: education, health/nutrition, gender, social protection and food security. The education sector should lead and convene multisectoral discussions, modelling what breaking the silos can look like.

Second, development partners, especially international financial institutions, should commit to increasing support for school meal programs to play an even greater role in supporting the Coalition’s goals, especially as countries transition from low-income to middle-income status. Governments are betting on the next generation; perhaps it is time for donors to do the same?


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

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The school meal also encourages punctuality of t pupils to school, this also enhance learning perform in school and it aid pupils to concentrate in the classroom.

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