Countless children around the world turn up at schools with empty stomachs every day. Many simply do not go, as their families need them to help in the fields or around the house. For all of them, having food at school every day can mean not only better nutrition and health, but also increased access to and achievement in education. It is also a strong incentive to consistently sending children to schools. School feeding programmes have been continuously gaining popularity in developing countries, mostly among those affected severely by childhood hunger and malnourishment. These programmes aim to enhance the concentration span and learning capacity of school children by providing meals in schools to reduce short-term hunger that may otherwise impair children’s performance.
In 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP) supported school feeding programmes for 18.3 million children in 71 countries. It also built the capacities of 65 governments, which led to improved national school feeding programmes for another 39 million children. Programme particulars vary between the provision of breakfast or lunch, or both. Some programmes provide complete meals, while others distribute fortified, high-energy biscuits or nutritious snacks. Food and/or cash rations are handed out to families as incentives to keep children in school on condition that they attend regularly. Food is procured locally when possible.In 46 countries, school feeding programmes are linked to local smallholder farm production, combining nutritional and educational benefits with a positive impact on local economies. Partnering with civil society, school feeding programmes can help build trust in national education systems and foster social inclusion. Programmes can be tailored to target specific groups of children, including those forced into child labour. They can also prevent early marriage for girls and child pregnancies. The school feeding programme promotes educational outcomes by enabling children to attend classes consistently and improving their ability to learn, when they are in school. Nearly all countries around the world have some form of school feeding programme.
In Bangladesh, the government recognises school meals as an essential tool for the development and growth of children, communities, and society as a whole and it is considered as a successful programme. School feeding programme has contributed significantly higher enrolment rates, improved attendance and a higher number of primary education completions. It also reduces absenteeism and dropout rates even in poverty-prone areas. The fortified biscuits provided through the school feeding programme, minimise students’ short-term hunger, and create a more positive learning environment and allow students to better concentrate in class.
The school feeding programme commenced in Bangladesh in 2001 by WFP as an emergency response programme to 350,000 school children from flood-affected families in Jashore district with the aim of bringing them back into school. The school feeding programme was considered highly successful and thence included as a core-component in the WFP’s country programme to address poor enrolment and attendance rates in poverty stricken areas of Bangladesh.
Given the positive impact of school feeding for more than a decade and lessons learned from the school feeding programme of WFP, the Government of Bangladesh, with direct technical assistance from WFP, began school feeding programmes to 56,635 primary students in two Upazilas in 2011 with their own resources. By 2016 it has reached up to 2.53 million students in 72 Upazilas run by the government. WFP now covers around 0.5 million school children in food-insecure and poverty-prone areas. Prioritisation of the current programming areas has been based on the Poverty Map. At present the school feeding programme coverage reach over 3 million school children in 15,700 schools in 93 upazilas of 29 districts of Bangladesh.
The school feeding programme provides biscuits and others fortified with vitamins and minerals to pre-primary and primary school children in high poverty prone areas. WFP works with the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (MoPME) of the Government of Bangladesh. WFP is providing technical support to MoPME to develop the National School Feeding Policy and Strategy. The Government of Bangladesh recently has announced plans to expand its school meal programme reaching 400,000 children at 2,000 schools in 16 Upazilas. A pilot programme was started in 2013 at Bamna and Islampur Upazilas which provides school going children fresh and hot meals. Locally-sourced fresh vegetables are included along with lentils and micronutrient-fortified rice and oil. It is revealed from the pilot programme that these fresh meals are a cost-effective approach to combating micronutrient deficiency.
The programme significantly increased food consumption for the beneficiary households, even after controlling for effects of income and other factors. However, studies have revealed that the targeting errors of exclusion and inclusion are quite large - a sizable number of poor households are excluded from the programme, even while many non-poor households are included. These studies suggest that a large proportion of the non-poor households met the official selection criteria. These criteria, therefore, provided scope for perverse discretion in the beneficiary selection process.Under these circumstances there is a need to build up a consensus on a policy and objectives that focus on how school feeding can effectively contribute to improving education and meeting the nutrition and health needs of school-age children. Relevant authorities need to agree on what problems or situations the school feeding programme will address, who the programme will serve, and which programme models are feasible for implementation. It is necessary to develop targeting criteria and mechanisms that concentrate programme resources on high-risk children and communities. In view of the fact that resources are finite, and that providing food is expensive, targeting is a critical element of any effort to improve the impact of a school-feeding programme on education. Targeting is essential if the programme is to reach families and communities lacking the resources to adequately provide for their school-age children or those that need to be motivated to enrol their children in school and to have them attend more regularly. Analyse and identify alternative financing and cost options for school feeding programme is also important. Feeding programmes of any kind are expensive. Financing may include international assistance, but in all cases, available public resources-or the potential to draw on them-are required. Cost alone can indicate little about the value of a school feeding programme but, unfortunately, cost-effectiveness analyses, which assess costs relative to impact on nutrition and education outcomes, are for the most part unavailable. In this context may require immediate action to elaborate appropriate guidelines for ration composition and the timing of school meals. To establish appropriate ration guidelines, relevant authorities need to analyse the nutrition and health needs of school-age children. Conditions such as levels of school enrolment, attendance, and performance, the availability of infrastructure and the capacity to implement different kinds of programmes also need to be assessed. Information is also required on the community’s perceptions and capacity to participate in school feeding programmes.
(The writer acknowledges with gratitude the different sources of information.)
The writer is a Chinese Government PhD Fellow and Assistant Professor,
Department of Public Administration, Jagannath University, Dhaka