Student Well-Being

School Lunch Programs Expand Around the World

By Nirvi Shah — May 29, 2013 2 min read
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Every day, millions of American students eat, or recoil in horror from, school lunches, which are the subject of parodies and documentariesand fodder for food bloggers and opinionators.

In other countries, school lunches are a vehicle for deworming children’s intestines and improving national economies, and some of those countries are making that investment even though the cost of providing meals at school can be 50 percent of the annual budget for educating a child.

A new report catalogs how many children around the world eat meals at school—meals that can be a critical component of students’ educations. Hungry students can be less productive and have a harder time concentrating in class. And for every $1 spent by governments and donors on school meal programs, the United Nation’s World Food Programme estimates that at least $3 is gained in economic returns in the form of education and agricultural production.

Around the world, some 368 million kids—1 out of 5 schoolchildren—eat a government-subsidized lunch at school every day, the new tally from the WFP shows. Providing all those meals in 169 countries costs $75 billion a year. (Consider that the U.S. school lunch program costs about $11 billion a year. About 32 million U.S. students eat meals at school every day.) The average annual cost of feeding one child ranges from about $56 in low and lower-middle income countries to $370 in upper-middle and high income countries, the report says.

The WFP has been running school meal programs for about 50 years and also provides take-home rations in some regions, an effort to encourage poor families to let their children go to school rather than work.

The report documents some good news, the Rome-based agency said: Over the last five years, at least 38 countries have scaled up their school feeding programs—although those expansions have often been in response to a series of crises including rising food prices, conflict, natural disasters, or financial volatility. WFP gives examples including armed conflict in the Philippines, the earthquake in Haiti, high food prices in Ghana, and floods in El Salvador. The agency’s latest effort? Feeding school children in civil-war torn Syria.

Nevertheless, the State of School Feeding Worldwide report says that where children need it most, they are least likely to get a meal at school: In low-income countries, only 18 percent of students receive a daily meal at school, compared to nearly 49 percent of children in middle-income countries.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.