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May 19, 2011

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May 19, 2011

Why sub-Saharan Africa needs Universal School Meals. Guest post from Swati Narayan

May 19, 2011
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Swati Narayan128 million children are enrolled in primary schools across Sub-Saharan Africa. But few of them get anything to eat while they’re in school. Many go to school hungry each morning without any breakfast. 13 year old Sylvester is one of them. He lives in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, where children are amongst the least healthy in the country.

But Sylvester is one of the lucky few. At 12.40 p.m., his ears prick up at the sound of the school lunch bell. He looks forward to the steaming hot, freshly cooked porridge which could well be his only meal for the day.

As in any urban slum, there is no dearth of food on sale in small shops in Kibera. Though the price of the staple maize is far less than its peaks in 2008 and 2009, many families still do not have the money to buy enough food. Many people suffer from HIV/AIDS and are unable to find work in a country where the unemployment rate is as high as 40 percent.

But, school meals can motivate poor families to enroll and retain their children in school. An analysis of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) interventions across sub-Saharan Africa found that school feeding increased enrolment by 28 percent for girls and 22 percent for boys in the first year of initiation.

This is a double dividend for children. While the first two years of life are the most crucial to address malnutrition, school meals too have proven to enhance children’s diets in their growing years, and with it, their life chances in terms of achievement.

Growing Out of Poverty
But where does the food come from? This week, Sylvester’s school, which receives supplies from the WFP, is serving porridge cooked with fortified oil that has traveled all the way from Japan and bulgur wheat grown on mechanized farms in the United States.

This needs to change. If existing school meals were to purchase maize from smallholders within the country, it is estimated to increase the income of 175,000 Kenyan farmers by $50 each year. This could contribute substantially to invest in and revive agriculture.

Though the WFP makes a genuine effort to support local procurement across developing countries, it continues to receive substantial quantities of ‘in-kind’ food aid from rich countries. Its Purchase for Progress (P4P) and Home Grown School Feeding Initiative (HGSF) too have so far remained limited in scale. The Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture’s Njaa Marufuku (Eradicate Hunger) programme to link smallholder farmers to school meals also has yet to take root nationwide.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is also on a similar crusade to ensure that school meals are healthy and locally grown.

Money Matters
But the main challenge for countries in sub-Saharan Africa is to secure predictable, sustainable and inflation-indexed funding to finance local procurement of school meals.

On the other hand, most high and middle income countries have long-standing, politically popular, partially School Meals in Kibera Classroomsubsidized and near universal availability of school feeding. A comprehensive World Bank study, Rethinking School Feeding, reveals the importance of affordability — since there is a very sharp decrease in the relative costs of school feeding as GDP increases.

And wealthier countries also have the luxury to generate internal sources of revenue. El Salvador uses the interest generated from a trust fund established with the privatization of a national telecommunications company. India has an innovative ‘education cess’ (a 3 per cent addition to existing tax revenues) which finances meals for 130 million school children. But these large pots need to be ring-fenced and protected. Three years ago, for example, the Indian Education Ministry had to stave off severe pressure by private companies eager to replace the $ 1 billion ‘market’ for freshly cooked school meals with packaged biscuits.

Apart from national sources, low-income African countries can also explore bilateral and multi-lateral sources. The Dutch government, for example, supports a substantial portion of Ghana’s national school feeding programme. Existing mechanisms like the Education for All Fast-track Initiative funds school feeding in Madagascar and Guyana. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme could also prove to be an alternative.

And in the near future, could the stellar Robin Hood Tax also open up innovative revenue streams to end classroom hunger and enable African farmers to grow themselves out of poverty? 

Swati Narayan is an independent food policy specialist, based in Delhi


  1. Having taken part in the Living Below the Line campaign two weeks ago – i have begun to realise how important a school lunch is. How can we expect people to have the time and the energy to think about anything other than getting enough food for their family. Have you ever tried to sit and concentrate when you are hungry and dehydrated?
    It would make so much sense if the WFP were sufficiently flexible as to be able to procure from local suppliers to boost the local agricultural economy at the same time as keeping kids in school.
    Where is the common sense?

  2. Good article. I’d suggest that there is a missing and often overlooked component that’s crucial to enable school feeding, as well as a) food and b) money and that is c) fuel. Without fuel, no cooking, no meals. It is increasingly a struggle for schools to find the firewood (usually) to cook with, at an affordable price. It’s vital to factor in provision for energy efficient stove programmes in schools and other institutions, like hospitals, and it could be argued (as the Ashdens Awards have done) that that is a good use of carbon finance (and not a dubious use). There was an example just now on AlertNet – (Ugastoves do institutional stoves as well as household ones).

  3. India’s school meal program is certainly a laudable idea. However, a recent report by IDS brought out that malnourishment rates among children in India are much higher than in Sub-Saharan African countries.

  4. Thanks for pointing out the importance of sourcing locally grown food for school lunches. I think agricultural development and food security for SS-Africa is best conceived on a regional level, since some countries are too small and would be better specializing than trying to grow everything. Emphasis needs to be placed on identifying “food sheds” where surplus regions can supply deficit regions for staple food crops. Decreasing trade barriers between adjacent countries is crucial for this.

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