As different strategies for ensuring universal primary school enrollment continue to be explored, the World Bank and the UN World Food Program (WFP) believe that the implementation of free meal programs in schools is showing an increase in sustained enrollment. This information was outlined in Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector, a report released mutually by the two organizations. In the report, World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick and WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran state: “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.”

Free meal programs are already popular education incentives in high- and middle-income countries. According to the World Bank, Japan has one of the most comprehensive school feeding programs in the world. Moreover, the US Department of Agriculture reports that over 30 million US students participated in free meal programs in 2008, and are expecting the number to increase by over 5 per cent in some cities by the end of 2009.

According to the World Bank, more than 60 million children in developing countries go to school hungry everyday. Because of this, the UN News Service reports that free school meal programs would be especially beneficial to primary school enrollment rates in developing countries, and particularly when applied alongside the abolition of school fees. Thus, as a pilot scheme, on 16 November 2009 the WFP launched a feeding program in Iraq incorporating about 172,000 children attending primary school in eight of the country’s poorest districts. Throughout the three-month duration of the program, every child will receive a free micronutrient-fortified 80-gram date bar on each day they attend school. Currently, WFP statistics report that 66 per cent of children complete primary school education in Iraq, and that nine out of ten children under the age of 15 do not attend school regularly. So far, this pilot program has received $1.6 million in funding from the Iraqi government, and the WFP plans to extend it in the coming year to integrate around 1 million children as participants.

Negatives and benefits

Though the implementation of free meal programs in developing countries is widely seen as beneficial, there are several different perspectives on the subject. In an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition called Evaluation of school feeding programs: some Jamaican examples, authors Dr. Sally M. Grantham-McGregor, Dr. Susan Chang, and Dr. Susan P Walker – award-winning child development research scholar, Professor of Pathology at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica (UWI Mona), and Professor part of UWI, Mona’s Tropical Metabolism Research Unit, respectively – argue that because of the general perception that poor or undernourished children should be provided with meals, scientific journals are “often reluctant to publish results that indicate no benefit.” Thus, because of the generally positive reaction generated by ideas of feeding undernourished or poor children, if research were to provide evidence that feeding programs may not necessarily include enrollment, or that they may have some unwarranted negative socio-political effects, it is likely that it may not be publicized. The authors also believe that the perception that such children should be fed exerts undue pressure on researchers to produce positive results.

If problems with free meal programs do exist, then what might some be? Dr. Martin J. Forman, who at one time was head of USAID’s Office of Nutrition for over 20 years, expressed what he thought were major problems in his article called Problems in Overseas School Feeding Programs. Dr. Forman labels a major problem to be the lack of administrative infrastructure in many developing countries, which hinders orderly record keeping, organization, and distribution of the food. Moreover, Mr. Forman points out food distribution, as in countries’ food distribution systems, as being key obstructions to the potential success of school feeding programs: “Many countries have stepped from the excart into the aviation stage, skipping the railroad and higher development so necessary to an internal distribution system – a situation which is further complicated by an often imposing topography.”

While Dr. Forman raises valid concerns, research expressing the merits of school feeding programs has also been published. In a research report called How effective are food for education programs?, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) remarks that school feeding programs can not only provide enrollment incentives, but also have positive impacts on learning and cognitive developments. Because of these benefits, the IFPRI concludes, “ … program administrators should be willing to consider complimentary programs to improve school quality.”

Another important factor that is often discussed relates to exactly where free meal programs are most efficient. In School Feeding Programs in Developing Countries: An Analysis of Actual and Potential Impact, a study compiled by Dr. Beryl Levinger, a professor of Nonprofit Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, it is hypothesized that school feeding programs are most effective in settings where attendance is not already high. In these areas, low attendance rates are primarily a result of children’s rural, relatively low, socioeconomic backgrounds.

Data from the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) confirms that this is, indeed, a likely situation. But there is no indication that it is an unfortunate one. According to UNGEI, concentration on school feeding programs is put in areas where enrollment ratios are lowest, thus ensuring that school feeding will have the greatest impact. Because of this, the availability of food at school increases attendance rates significantly; UNGEI’s research shows that when a school meal is provided, enrollments can double within a year.

Personal experiences

Some former participants of school feeding programs in developing countries have spoken out on how they, as participants, had been affected. Mr. Paul Tergat, an internationally famous Kenyan athlete and UN goodwill ambassador, was raised in one of his countries poorest districts. He told the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN): “A local school-feeding project was critical in helping me grow up to become the healthy, literate person I am today.”

Current free meal program participants have also expressed their gratitude for the programs. Kurgat Yelokum, a fourth grade pupil at Nginyang primary school in Kenya, told IRIN that without the provided school lunch he would not be able to run the 15 km from his home to the school. He says: “I don’t get any food at home. If there is no food, I can’t read. I feel very hungry. I think the food should be increased in school so we can read better.”

School feeding programs: next steps?

The second UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) calls for ensuring that by 2015, children everywhere should be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. This goal includes the notion that the quantity of enrollment is as important as the quality of education. The implementation of free meal programs in schools has the potential to both increase enrollment, as discussed by the World Bank, the WFP, and UNGEI, as well as the quality of education. Kurgat Yelokum says that in his life, educational quality is enhanced as nutrition can lead to improved educational performance. Moreover, in her study, Dr. Levinger associates three primary objectives with school feeding programs: 1) to increase school enrollment and attendance among school-age children; 2) to improve the nutritional status of children in school; and 3) to improve the cognitive development and academic performance of participating children. If these three objectives succinctly sum up the potential impact of school feeding programs, school feeding programs can directly relate to the achievement of at least one MDG. Therefore, what next related steps should be taken?

Dr. Forman presents several ideas in his article for what next the steps should be to improve administration and distribution. In countries with inadequate internal transportation networks, he proposes the introduction of mobile units that have the capability to tour even the most remote areas where schools are established. Moreover, Dr. Forman believes that mobile units can be beneficial in multiple ways. In addition to simply distributing food, mobile units can include personnel that are trained in not only food preparation, but in nutrition education as well. Thus, in addition to distributing to food, mobile units can begin “giving demonstrations in food preparation and teaching sanitation practices and elementary nutrition.”

Past successes

School feeding programs that are implemented in developing countries have had varying degrees of success. India has had free meal programs since as far back as the 1920s, and state governments generally act as the primary financiers with some external assistance. Following a petition compiled by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a coalition of organizations that led the Right to Food Campaign, India’s Supreme Court instructed all state governments to introduce school feeding programs in all government and government-assisted primary schools in 2001. Currently, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) administers many of the Indian school feeding programs. The FCIacquires food domestically, then distributes it to stores within the FCI network. From the stores, the food is transported to individual schools and villages. The Indian central government also participates by providing free food grains, such as rice or wheat, to implementing state agencies. Moreover, it reimburses transportation costs to district authorities participating in the programs.

Brazil has also had success in implementing free meal programs. The Brazilian school feeding program is part of the country’s constitution and a component of the government-created Zero Hunger Program. Brazil’s Zero Hunger Program has many different elements aimed at raising standards of living for poor Brazilians, and increasing access to affordable and nutritious food; school feeding programs are one of the constituents. The program was designed by the administration of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who said in his inauguration speech, “if, by the end of my mandate, every Brazilian has food to eat three times a day, I shall have fulfilled my mission in life.” Currently, the Zero Hunger Program provides for nearly 37 million children each year and is one of the world’s largest. In early 2009, Brazil started considering legislation to establish that at least 30 per cent of the food used by the country’s school feeding programs should be procured locally.

Financing for school feeding

A major constraint for not only the implementation of school feeding programs, but also for educational development itself, is insufficient financial support. According to Dr. Marlaine Lockheed, a Senior Sociologist in the Education and Employment Division of the Bank’s Population and Human Resource Department, an organized program of investment can help. While school feeding programs should be localized achievements, Ms. Lockheed believes that increased aid for education from developed countries can make drastic improvements. During the 1980s, only 4.3 per cent of all international aid was used for education; this was about $181.3 million in annual aid, or about 40 cents per child. In her article, Improving primary schools in developing countries, Dr. Lockheed argues that in order to improve education development, perhaps even ten times as much financial resources are required. Her article also expresses that these resources should be invested in a sustainable way and directed at recurrent costs that promote learning. Dr. Lockeed states that because of the need for increasing financial support, countries will need to increase their own education funding; but, in the short and medium term, interim budget support from external sources will be required.

However, Dr. Lockheed also argues that external aid should be targeted more effectively than it has been in the past. For external aid to be effective, sub-sector development programs should be created. External financing can also be blended with national resources, and targeted towards specific educational activities like free meal programs.

World Bank and WFP strategies

The World Bank has devised a general guide aimed for successful sustainability of future school feeding programs. The step-by-step guide outlines issues that need to be considered at each stage of implementation. According to the guide, amongst the key issues that need consideration are government policies and building government capacity: “School feeding programs should be owned by national governments and support government priorities, policies, and needs. Partnerships with national governments should be implemented in a manner consistent with the principles of ownership, alignment, harmonization, management for results, and mutual accountability.”

This step-by-step guide was published in a book written together by the World Bank and the WFPcalled Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector. According to the organizations, the book’s objective is to provide guidance on how to develop and implement effective school feeding programs. This guidance is contextualized as the productive safety net as part of responding to social shocks of the current global crises, and a fiscally sustainable investment in human capital as part of long-term global efforts to achieve education for all and provide social protection.

The book is based upon efforts that have been made in the past, and discerns the positive and the negative aspects of the implementation process. School feeding programs have been implemented in the past by both organizations. According to the WFP, they have worked with governments and NGOs on free meal programs for 45 years. In 2008, the WFP assisted about 22 million children with school feeding approximately 68 countries.