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School feeding schemes help to grow young minds

Studies show that feeding programmes at schools not only reduce stunting, but also combat obesity and lead to increased enrolment in schools.

Every dollar invested in school feeding programmes “pays off four times in the form of economic advantages”, according to the World Food Programme. The global investment in school feeding programmes is $75-billion a year.

The results are starting to pay off in Africa, with several studies having found that school feeding schemes increase children’s health and their attendance at school.

A 2015 study by the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg found that children between the ages of four and 14 who received food at school had lower rates of being underweight and wasting than those who didn’t.

The study, which was conducted in the Lady Frere district in the Eastern Cape, compared the health of children in schools receiving lunch under the government’s national school nutrition programme with that of children in schools receiving lunch and a breakfast provided by the Tiger Brands Foundation.

According to the study, 13% of children in South Africa are stunted as a result of malnutrition. Stunting was significantly lower among children who had access to school feeding programmes: 9% of those who received one meal a day were stunted, but only 6.5% of those who received both breakfast and lunch were stunted.

Study authors also found that pupils “at the schools receiving both nutritional interventions [breakfast and lunch] were significantly less likely than those receiving only the [lunch] to be overweight or obese”.

Malnutrition’s devastating effects

“Malnutrition directly impinges on the development of a child’s active learning capacity so that they function at reduced levels of intellectual development and academic achievement,” says Irene Labuschagne, a dietician from the University of Stellenbosch’s Nutrition Information Centre. “Malnutrition in early childhood has serious, long-term consequences because it impedes motor, sensory, cognitive, social and emotional development.”

In 2009, the World Bank conducted a study that assessed the effect of two school feeding schemes on the health and education of children from low-income households in northern rural Burkina Faso.

One feeding programme provided children with lunch every school day and another with take-home rations of 10kg of cereal flour to girls each month, “conditional on [a] 90% attendance rate”. Both programmes increased girls’ enrolment in school by 5% to 6% after one academic year.

According to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Innovative Research and Development, school enrolment in Ghana increased by 20.3% over the past 10 years in schools with school feeding programmes.

“Eating breakfast improves overall dietary intake and although the effects are subtle, breakfast enhances performance,” says Labuschagne. “Temporary hunger causes inattentiveness and reduced physical and mental activity, and has a negative influence on school performance and learning.”

Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.