The first school meal that Aida, 10, in Kyrgyzstan had was a warm soup with a sweet bun.
“I remember being full and I had so much energy after the meal,” she told the World Food Programme (WFP). “We attend five classes a day, with very short breaks between them, and lunch is served after the third class. If we don’t sit down for lunch, my friends and I would be very hungry. Lunchtime helps me get energy for the rest of the school day.”
Since that first meal a few years ago, Aida has participated in WFP’s Optimizing School Meals Program, which provides daily meals to students who may not otherwise have access to a lunch.
The meals help to provide the fuel that she needs to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor so that she can help with vaccination efforts — a dream that’s been shaped by the turmoil of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, more than 370 million students have missed school meals due to COVID-19-related school closures, WFP reports. The pandemic has pushed hundreds of millions of people into poverty, increased global hunger rates, and could derail the educational paths of millions of children.
In this context, school meals are a lifeline — and the School Meals Coalition (SMC) is on the front lines of ensuring that children in educational contexts around the world have, like Aida, access to something to eat to get them through the day.
For every $1 invested in school meals, communities receive $9 in economic returns, according to an analysis by WFP. Despite this bargain, school meal programs around the world remain underfunded.
“The question to me is: ‘What’s the cost of not providing a school meal to all the children on the planet?’ If you want increased poverty, don’t provide school meals,” David Beasley, the executive director of WFP, said in a statement. “If you want more child marriages, don’t provide school meals. If you want more destabilization and migration, and recruitment by extremist groups, don’t provide school meals.
“But if you want to see stronger local communities, and teen-pregnancy rates drop, and educational opportunities increase, and GDP and economic empowerment, especially of girls — if you want to see that increase, then provide school meals,” he said.
As the SMC seeks to raise an additional $4.7 billion to feed 73 million vulnerable children, here are five things to know about the benefits of school feeding programs.
1. School meals keep children, especially girls, in school.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 260 million children were out of school, unable to get the education that they needed to get ahead in life. The school closures caused by the pandemic greatly expanded the number of out-of-school children, creating a potentially generation-defining disruption.
But before and during the pandemic, school meals provided an incentive to either come to school or attend remote classes. Now, as communities continue to refine strategies for opening up schools, daily meals that fight hunger can help to ensure students resume their education.
Girls, in particular, benefit from this dynamic. Throughout the world, girls are more likely to be pulled from school to help out with domestic responsibilities, to work, or because of rising school costs. School meals help to provide the justification needed to stay in school.
2. School meals provide essential nutrition.
Hundreds of millions of children worldwide don't get the food that they need to be healthy. In fact, an estimated 149 million children under the age of 5 are stunted, meaning they’re not as cognitively and physically developed as they would have been had they received enough nutrients from their diets. Another 45 million children are wasted, or too thin for their height, and nearly 39 million are overweight.
School meal programs tackle all of these problems by providing students with meals that have key nutrients that children need to develop and stay healthy. For many children, a school meal is often the only meal of the day, and when it’s balanced, it can stave off negative health effects. Because these meals are usually prepared and cooked by community members, they also help to keep children connected to local culture.
3. School meals provide support to local farmers.
The best school meal programs are community-based and provide financial support to local farmers. In doing so, they help generate economic activity, allow farmers to improve their operations, and expand local agriculture. They also ensure that children are receiving fresh and healthy ingredients on a daily basis.
In Timbuktu, in Mali, local food producers are providing meals to children with support from WFP based on local traditions, while ensuring adequate nutrition.
4. School meals help families save money.
More than 3 billion people worldwide struggle to afford healthy food because of the ways in which the global food system prioritizes overly processed foods and disrupts local agriculture, and the global economy impoverishes large swaths of the world.
By providing school meals, families save money that over time can help them invest in healthier food options or pay for other bills that would otherwise be deferred. As time goes on, families can earn a greater degree of financial security which can, in turn, give children the freedom they need to stay in school rather than working to earn an income.
5. School meals create positive ripple effects.
School meals seem simple. And, in material terms, they are — a plate of rice and lentils, a bowl of soup with bread. But they’re also building blocks toward a brighter, more dignified future.
Of course, many other factors have to be in place to ensure children thrive — such as good schools, freedom from violence and trauma, and adequate health care. But the importance of food can’t be overstated.
When children have daily access to nutritious food, they’re able to emerge into their full potential. The $9 generated for every $1 invested in school meal programs shows how investing in children is good for the whole of a community as well.
School meals contribute to an environment where girls avoid early marriage and pregnancy and go onto higher education, where jobs and local entrepreneurialism get created, and where well-being becomes the norm.