Educators in low-income areas everywhere struggle with one of the most basic hurdles to teaching children - students showing up to school hungry.
The U.N. World Food Program said in its 2013 State of School Feeding Worldwide report
that supplying meals and snacks to students is a proven benefit, but that the programs are still not reaching children who need them most. Researchers have found that supplying free lunches to students in rural primary schools not only made them healthier, it raised their test scores.
During the academic school year of 2009-2010, researchers in Senegal did an experiment.
They took 120 rural primary schools in four of the poorest regions of Senegal.
Students at half the schools received free, daily lunches - a local dish of rice with vegetables, either fish or meat, cooked in oil.
Students at the other 60 schools did not.
The director of the Consortium for Social Economic Research (CRES) in Dakar, Abdoulaye Diagne, led the study.
He said students who received school meals were better able to memorize and reason. He said they learned and understood more than those students who did not receive meals.
Standardized test scores, the study found, went up an average of 7 percentage points in French and 8.5 percentage points in math. The effect was much greater for girls and the youngest students.
The study also compared the nutritional value of meals supplied at school with what kids would normally eat at home, and found the nutritional well-being of students who received the meals improved over the course of the year.
The World Food Program says that about $75 billion goes into school feeding programs each year worldwide. Most of this money comes from governments.
However, the WFP said only 18 percent of children in the poorest countries receive a daily meal at school, compared to nearly half of children in middle-income countries.
"School meals are a crucially important part and play a huge role in schools around the world. It means, in practicalities, kids can concentrate. They can study. They stay in school. They will send their own children to school one day. Girls will have fewer children if they have school meals and an education; they marry at a later stage," stated Bettina Luescher, World Food Program spokesperson. "And there’s this huge impact on how they grow up to become strong, smart adults."
Luescher said that school feeding programs also buffer children from crises - like droughts, war, or a spike in food prices. “Then, school meals are a way of keeping children in school. It’s often the only way that families can afford to keep their children fed. And sometimes it’s the only meal that some of these children get,” Luescher added.
The big drawback is the cost - especially in low-income countries where the cost of feeding programs is often more than annual tuition.
However, the WFP estimates that for every dollar spent on a school meal, countries will see three dollars in economic returns: Local farmers, for example, benefit because they can sell their food to the school meal programs, and the country builds a smarter workforce.