School meals an investment in Kenya’s future

School feeding programme

School children enjoy a meal courtesy of the Food for Education feeding programme.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • There are still millions of children who go to school every day on an empty stomach.
  • School meals act as an incentive for vulnerable families to enrol their children in school.

In the heart of Kenya’s educational system lies an unsung hero — the school meal programme. Beyond just filling stomachs, this hero improves children’s education, health and nutrition, enabling them to learn and perform better, broadening their educational opportunities and boosting their potential to generate higher incomes in the future. 

But there are still millions of children who go to school every day on an empty stomach. There are others — particularly girls — who do not go to school because their families need them to help in the fields or to perform domestic duties. 

School meals can help to address many of these challenges. They are an effective solution to poor nutrition and a pathway to healthy diets for vulnerable children, especially in low-income urban areas and the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). In these areas, a meal at school is often the only one a child receives in a day.

For starters, school meal programmes act as an incentive for vulnerable families to enrol their children in school and keep them there. Relieving parents from having to budget for lunches, they provide a safety net for vulnerable hardworking families who struggle daily to make ends meet.

At Java House Foundation and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), we have seen first-hand how our work on promoting school meals has increased both enrolment and attendance.

Positive impacts on communities

In addition, school meals also empower girls by dissuading parents from marrying off their daughters early, which halts their education and can result in early pregnancies. For others, a daily nutritious meal at school could save them from recruitment into banditry, gangs and extremism.

Beyond the immediate benefits for students, the programmes also have positive impacts on communities and economies. By sourcing ingredients locally, these programmes support local farmers and stimulate agricultural production.

This not only creates jobs but also strengthens local food systems, promoting food security and resilience in the face of climate shocks such as drought and floods or economic crises.

There are also other spill-over effects. Buying locally grown food is beneficial for the environment as it reduces reliance on carbon-heavy imports.

Investing in school meals is also a wise economic strategy. Studies have consistently shown that every shilling spent on school feeding programmes yields significant returns in terms of improved educational outcomes, increased productivity and reduced healthcare costs.

School meal programmes

The WFP estimates that every dollar invested in Kenya generates a return of up to nine for home-grown school feeding, making it a highly cost-effective solution. By nourishing children today, we are investing in a healthier future population. 

Despite their benefits, however, school meal programmes face numerous challenges. To fully harness the potential of school meals as a tool for social and economic development, there is an urgent need for increased investment, private sector engagement, innovative approaches and strong political commitment.

A meal at school is more than just giving food to a child; it is an investment in the family, the community and, ultimately, the country's future. 

As we strive to build a brighter future for the next generation, let us not underestimate the transformative power of a simple meal served to a child at school.

Ms Landis is the Kenya Country Director, the World Food Programme. Ms Gathungu is the Group CEO of Java House