School feeding programme is key to national economic growth

ECDE learners

Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) learners at Ngurunit Primary School in Laisamis, Marsabit County, are served porridge on July 18, 2019. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Studies show school feeding programmes as a robust social protection mechanism to enhance learning and food security. 
  • Only 20 per cent of the country’s public primary school pupil have access to a coordinated feeding programme. 

The biggest headache of our time is child hunger, which hinders efforts to increase educational outcomes in many African countries. In mitigation, studies show school feeding programmes as a robust social protection mechanism to enhance learning and food security. 

Sadly, school feeding in Kenya suffers from chronic under-investment. Only 20 per cent of the country’s public primary school pupil have access to a coordinated programme. 

Further, the Covid-19 pandemic seriously disrupted our economy and school calendar with its ripple effects still being experienced. The Presidential Policy and Strategy Unit reported that 75 per cent of adolescents missed meals due to Covid-19. And a 2021 Unicef study shows 947,413 children, 52.3 per cent of them girls, were out of school in16 counties. 

India’s ‘Mid-Day Meals’ scheme is one of three flagship feeding programmes in the Asian country, reaching close to 100 million school-aged children with hot-cooked meals. 

School feeding encourages parents to send children to school and keeps pupils in class, resulting in increased enrolment and reduced absenteeism. Where feeding was introduced in Kenyan schools, there was a 15 per cent improvement in student retention between Standard One and Six. That is besides improved academic performance.

Daily school meals

Girls are more disadvantaged than boys in their education journey. Globally, double the number of girls than boys never start school. School feeding has enabled girls to stay in school longer and focus on their education, improving their performance. Research shows the ratio of boys to girls in class at the start of school feeding programmes is 5:1 but, with school meals, can come down to 3:1.

The government highlights key policy goals touching on education and nutrition in its National School Meals and Nutrition Strategy (2017-2022). But a new policy is urgently needed that commits it to guarantee one hot nutritious meal per day to every public primary school pupil. Is that too much to ask?

An estimated 20 per cent of Kenya’s 10 million primary school children receive guaranteed and daily school meals, leaving many hungry. The government’s school meals programme supports the most children, with the allocated budget of Sh1.98 billion in 2020 allowing 1.5 million children to be fed. 

Meanwhile, Kenyans reportedly spent Sh83 billion on gambling in just six months last year. This money we are committing to feeding our own children simply is not enough.

Although there have historically been concerted efforts for school feeding in Kenya, like ‘Maziwa ya Nyayo’, there is a gap of some nine million primary school children who do not receive affordable, nutritious meals. 

Balanced diet

The World Food Programme (WFP) implemented a school feeding programme for 38 years that resulted in up to 1.6 million children in 4,000 schools benefiting from daily meals every year, evenly split between boys and girls. As it was handed over to the government, there was a need for more sustainable and scaled homegrown programmes.

Most school meals lack the required nutrients for growth due to limited dietary diversity and low levels of nutritional education. Studies show less than six per cent of Kenyan children have a balanced diet, primarily for lack of easily available and affordable food. Yet nutrient-rich sources of food such as fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins are readily available in our shambas. 

The correlation between poor nutrition and higher levels of stunting in children — one in four is permanently impaired — is well documented yet we disadvantage future generations by not investing in their meals. 

For the programme to be successful, the government should collaborate with schools and parents as central stakeholders, not mere beneficiaries. Teachers have a critical understanding and knowledge base, particularly on the complex needs of our children. Parents can make small contributions.

A hungry nation cannot grow. Yet when I read this year’s election manifestos, I will expect to see presidential candidates’ plans on scaling school feeding to all Kenyan children.

Ms Njiru is the executive director of Food for Education. [email protected]