The Impact of Child Nutrition on Academic Performance: School Meals as a Pathway to Break the Cycle of Poverty

by Ella

Millions of children worldwide face the daily struggle of attending school on empty stomachs, a predicament that often leads to growling stomachs, fatigue, and diminished cognitive abilities. In many cases, a school meal represents the sole source of nourishment these children receive each day.

Baron Segar, CEO of World Food Program USA, emphasizes the critical connection between child nutrition and educational achievement, stating, “We know that a hungry child cannot learn, a hungry child cannot grow, and a hungry child cannot reach their full potential. It’s our responsibility to ensure that over 15 million schoolchildren receive a daily meal every single year, enabling them to stay in school.”


Nutritious food is not only essential for a child’s physical growth but also plays a pivotal role in their academic performance. School meals are a lifeline for impoverished families worldwide, as they ensure that children remain in classrooms instead of working at home or entering early marriages. This, in turn, allows children to pursue education and secure a brighter future for themselves, their families, and their communities.


The Impact of Proper Nutrition on Child Development and Academic Performance


Cognitive functioning demands substantial energy; approximately 20% of daily calories are expended to fuel our brains. Some studies even suggest that more challenging cognitive tasks require increased calorie consumption.


For optimal brain development, children require an array of essential nutrients, including a balanced intake of protein, fats, carbohydrates, as well as vitamins, minerals, and water. Additionally, micronutrients such as iron, zinc, choline, iodine, folate, B12, and healthy fats are indispensable for cognitive development and learning.

Inadequate nutrition jeopardizes children’s healthy development, hindering brain cell production, affecting cell size and complexity, and impeding efficient communication between brain cells. These nutritional deficiencies can lead to delayed language development, impaired fine motor skills, and lower IQ, ultimately impacting a child’s overall life, both within and outside the classroom.

Child Malnutrition’s Widespread Consequences

At present, a staggering 45 million children suffer from severe malnutrition. Without intervention, these children face delayed cognitive development, which can have far-reaching effects on their future academic performance.

Regrettably, 73 million primary school children living in extreme poverty lack access to school meals. This absence of food during school hours initiates a vicious cycle of hunger, absenteeism, and entrenched poverty. Millions of children, particularly girls, are unable to attend school because they are needed for fieldwork, caregiving responsibilities, or domestic chores. In conflict-ridden regions, children are twice as likely to be out of school compared to their counterparts in more stable areas. This figure rises to 2.5 times more likely for girls. Missed school days translate into missed developmental milestones, affecting their grasp of fundamental math and literacy skills.

Segar explains, “A daily meal serves as a very, very strong incentive for families to keep sending their children to school. By providing those meals for kids, we see around a 9% increase in enrollment (12% for girls).”

The Life-Altering Impact of WFP School Meals

Nutritious school meals wield the power to transform children’s lives by combating hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. They provide essential nutrition, bolster school attendance and ongoing learning, and promote long-term health and well-being. School meals also bolster attendance and graduation rates by ensuring students have the nutrition required to maintain good health, strength, and focus on their studies.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) takes the lead in keeping millions of children in school and focused on their education by providing nourishing school meals, snacks, and take-home rations. As the world’s largest provider of school meals, the WFP reaches over 20 million children in 59 countries worldwide.

Key Achievements of School Meals Programs:

1. **Increased School Enrollment and Attendance:** In Bangladesh, the introduction of nutrient-fortified biscuits has boosted school enrollment by 14.2% and reduced drop-out rates by 7.5%. In Madagascar, attendance rates surged from 88% to 98% over two years following the introduction of take-home rations.

2. Improved Children’s Focus: In South Sudan, students like 13-year-old Joyce are driven to pursue their dreams. Joyce aspires to be a pilot and says, “I like going to school because I like to learn and be with my friends. I like the food here because it helps me learn better.”

3. Reduced Financial Burdens: For students like James, who lost his father and has limited family resources, a daily school lunch means one less meal to worry about paying for each day. James aspires to become a doctor and comments, “I work as a boda boda (motorcycle) driver to pay for my education and support my family.”

School Meals’ Impact on Poverty and Social Change

School meals play a pivotal role in alleviating poverty and challenging social norms that hinder girls’ education. The value of a school meal is equivalent to about 10% of a household’s income, enabling parents to redirect their funds toward other pressing needs. These savings also serve as a compelling incentive for parents to send their children, including girls, to school regularly.

In Cambodia, 14-year-old Heng Ouy and her 12-year-old sister Sheya ride second-hand bicycles to school daily, a significant expense for their family. The daily school-provided breakfast they receive is a tremendous help to their family. Heng Ouy says, “I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I want to help my parents, so they no longer have to struggle.”

Carmen Burbano de Lara, director of the school feeding division at the U.N. World Food Programme’s headquarters in Rome, affirms, “Everywhere we implement school feeding, we see that disproportionately girls stay in school for longer. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to marry or have children very early in life, which gives her a better start.”

School Meals: A Catalyst for Local Economies

Through the U.N. World Food Programme’s homegrown school meals program, ingredients for school meals are sourced from small-scale farmers. This approach not only benefits local economies but also combats poverty by increasing farmers’ incomes. Every dollar invested in school meals yields up to $10 in economic returns for the communities served.

Empowering a Generation through School Meals

Well-nourished and educated children are better equipped to find work, become community leaders, and start families of their own. By sustaining their education, remaining in school, and averting the enduring effects of childhood malnutrition, children develop the cognitive, physical, and social skills needed to construct healthy and productive lives for themselves and their communities.

With the simple yet pivotal provision of school meals, we are empowering the next generation of doctors, scientists, inventors, teachers, artists, leaders, and more, laying the foundation for a brighter and more equitable future.



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