How a school feeding project can change a nation: Big lessons from a small island

Nearly 65.8% of Eritrean children will drop out of school. More African children could be out of school in 2015 than there are today.

THE provision of food to school-children could be the missing link that can transform many a struggling African nation. It certainly did so in Cape Verde. Today, the small island nation off the coast of West Africa is considered to be on the road to achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. 

The country boasts a stable political climate and has among the highest per capita incomes of West African countries. The primary school enrolment rate is 112%, total adult literacy is 84.9% and, at 99.5%, girls are just as likely as boys to complete primary school education. But it wasn’t always like this.

When Cape Verde achieved independence in 1975, the country had two schools, two hospitals, 13 doctors and no courts of law. The island also struggled greatly with famine due to its isolated location, a dearth of arable land and recurring droughts. To help combat hunger in the island, in 1979 the World Food Programme (WFP) established a school-feeding programme for all primary schools and public kindergartens. This consisted of free meals to schools in Cape Verde, of which they took on most of the costs.  

Food did it

After nearly 30 years, WFP’s school feeding programme in Cape Verde helped to boost enrolment rates to among the highest in Africa. Not only did this programme provide sustenance to the children, it also increased school enrolment, thereby inadvertently promoting education as well. In 2010 the Cape Verdean government took over funding and management of the project, making it the first nationally owned school feeding programme in West Africa.

The school-feeding programme had a threefold effect; fighting poverty, ensuring a successful education system and promoting social inclusion. By 2010, the country had nearly halved the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, as well as that of people living below the minimum level of dietary consumption. In just two decades it transformed itself from an extremely poor country to one of the better performing economies in Africa.

Though all the successes of Cape Verde cannot be attributed to the school-feeding programme, the country’s political stability and prudent macroeconomic management plays a big part, it is a key factor. As Cape Verdean Prime Minister, José Maria Neves, said “the activities of WFP have contributed greatly to the success of the Cape Verdean education system, the fight against poverty and the promotion of social inclusion.”

30 million out of school

According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 30 million out-of-school children. Most of these children will never start school and those who do are at risk of dropping out. Across the region, more than one in three children who started school in 2012 will leave before reaching the last grade of primary. Some of the worst cases include Eritrea, with 65.8% of children out of school, and Liberia with 59.1%. Unicef states that “if current trends continue, there could be more children out of school in 2015 than there are today.” 

There is ample evidence to support two basic truths: food attracts poor children to school and education helps break the cycle of poverty. This is what school-feeding programmes do.

School feeding is defined here as the provision of food to school children. There are many types of programmes, but they can be loosely classified into two main groups: (1) in-school feeding, where children are fed in school with (a) programmes that provide meals; and (b) programmes that provide high-energy biscuits or snacks; and (2) take-home rations, where families are given food if their children attend school regularly.

In providing this food, the project relieves immediate short-term hunger which is very beneficial for learning. Alleviating short-term hunger among children at school helps to improve performance on school tests and promote normal progression from grade to grade in completing a basic education. According to the “Cost of Hunger in Africa” (COHA), a project led by the African Union Commission (AUC) and the NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency, it is estimated that 7-16 % of all grade repetitions in schools are associated with malnourished children. Ninety percent of grade repetition occurs in primary schools. They also state that children who are undernourished are likely to receive between 0.2 and 2 years less education than their peers.

Boost for girls

Another huge benefit of the school-feeding programme is that it facilitates the education of girls. An analysis of WFP survey data from 32 countries in sub-Saharan Africa which grouped 4,000 primary schools showed that girls’ enrolments went up by 28%, twice the rate in schools not receiving assistance. In Somalia for example, the ratio of girls to boys enrolled in WFP-assisted primary schools increased from 0.4 in 2006 to 0.77 in 2009. The increased enrolment of girls can be attributed to the sustained provision of girl’s take-home rations, which gave the family an incentive to send the girls to school.

The programmes not only increase girl enrollment but they also empower women and improve on their development indicators because when girls are educated they are more likely to have fewer and healthier children, and also head families that are food-secure. In Ghana, WFP interviews with community members, district officials, teachers and girls across several schools with and without take-home rations suggest that the cohort of 40,000 girls who were supported by the WFP programme were “pioneer” girls in their communities. The food program had acted as an incentive for girls to remain in school and postponed early marriages and reduced the incidents of families sending girls to work in the cities.

There are a few “spin-off” benefits too. Though the children directly benefit from the feeding programmes in terms of education and nutrition, their families and community benefit too. Families can transfer their resources to other areas and the programmes are linked to community development and local production, in particular when food is being sourced from poor, small-holding farmers.

Despite the clear benefits of these programmes, in Africa where the need for school feeding is the greatest, the coverage is the least. This is often because of the challenges for school feeding programmes which can range from their high operational costs to the need to build the capacity to procure food locally.

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