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School meals boost education, new report

afrol News, 24 November - A new report from the World Bank and the World Food Programme (WFP) shows that school feeding and other food-based safety net programmes are vital to keeping children in school, improving their learning and health, and promoting food security.

Although the report says that most countries offer school meals to their students, poor countries face a double burden of trying to expand under-funded feeding programs while fending off the worst effects of the financial, food, and fuel crises, with too little support from the international aid community.

According to the new report - Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector - school feeding programmes in poor countries boost school attendance, help children to learn more effectively, and spur better performance in class, especially when these programs are twinned with other measures such as de-worming (against soil-transmitted intestinal worms) and micronutrient-fortified snacks and biscuits, or vitamin supplements. In many countries, school feeding programmes are one of the key incentives to get children - especially girls and the poorest and most vulnerable children - into school, along with abolition of school fees and conditional cash transfer programs. The report says that providing school meals to children in qualifying families can be the equivalent of adding an extra 10 percent to average household incomes.

“What is clear from this report is that we are beyond the debate about whether school feeding makes sense as a way to reach the most vulnerable,” said World Bank Group President, Robert B. Zoellick, in a joint foreword to the new report, along with WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran. “In the face of global crises, we must now focus on how school feeding programs can be designed and implemented in a cost-effective and sustainable way to benefit and protect those most in need of help today and in the future.”

In a recent analysis of WFP survey data from 32 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that grouped 4,000 primary schools, girls’ enrolments went up by 28 percent, twice the rate in schools not receiving assistance. When programmes combined on-site school meals and take-home rations for a student’s family, girls’ enrolment in the highest primary grade surged by 46 percent, twice the yearly rate for girls in schools offering only on-site meals. The study finds that older girls are less likely to drop out, and that girls are more likely to stay in class throughout primary school when they bring food home to their families on top of their school meals.

The report also finds that coverage of school feeding programmes is most complete in high- and middle-income countries. For example, more than 50 percent of schoolchildren in Washington, D.C., receive free school meals - and Japan has one of the most comprehensive school feeding programs in the world. School meals can be rapidly deployed as a social safety net but, unfortunately, poor countries with the greatest needs too often run small, underfunded programs that cannot meet demand.

"At this critical hour of rising need, nations must stand together to help those who most risk tipping into crisis," said Josette Sheeran, WFP Executive Director. "Nations such as Brazil and China have demonstrated that social safety net programs like school meals help protect nutritionally vulnerable children and ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable do not plunge into destitution. In partnership with the World Bank, WFP is working with nations to create the next generation of school meal programmes that are sustainable and effective - drawing, where possible, from the produce of local farmers."

The successful transition of school feeding programmes to sustainable national programmes depends on the mainstreaming of school feeding into national policies, especially education sector plans. The report cites more than 32 examples of externally assisted programmes that have transitioned into sustainable national programmes, which in some cases have developed to the point that they provide technical support to other countries.

Sustainability also depends on a successful transition from reliance on external food aid to a greater focus on purchasing food from local farms and agricultural markets. Experience shows that by using locally grown food to supply school feeding programmes could raise farmers’ incomes, spur national economic growth, promote food security, lower school feeding costs, and improve the health and school performance of students.

Based on the book’s findings, the World Bank and WFP are already partnering with six countries this year to scale up school feeding programmes and other food-based safety net interventions, with the aim of helping countries transition to sustainable national programmes with domestic financing. This partnership - also working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - will emphasise local food procurement and other efforts to boost the incomes of small farmers - in Africa, 80 percent of small holders are women. This effort is consistent with the goals of the $20 billion Global Food Security Initiative announced at the Group of 8 (G-8) Summit in L’Aquila, Italy, in July.

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