The Effects of Child Nutrition on Academic Performance: How School Meals Can Break the Cycle of Poverty – US World Food Program

schoolgirls eating food at the table

Stomach rumbling, tiredness and brain fog: Every day, millions of children around the world go to school on an empty stomach. For many, school meals are the only food they have every day.

“We know that a hungry child cannot learn, a hungry child cannot grow, and a hungry child cannot reach their full potential,” says World Food Program USA Director General Baron Segar. “It is our responsibility to ensure that more than 15 million school children each year receive a daily meal so they can stay in school.”

A nutritious diet is essential not only for a child’s healthy growth, but also for his academic results. For poor families around the world, school meals help keep children in the classroom, rather than working at home or entering early marriage. Children can then continue their education and secure a future for themselves, their families and their communities.

Let’s explore how school meals and the work of the UN World Food Program (WFP) are helping to break the cycle of poverty.

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Proper nutrition improves child development and academic performance

It takes a lot of energy to think. In fact, about 20% of our daily calories are used to fuel our brain. Some studies tell us that more demanding cognitive work burns more calories.

In order for a child’s brain to develop, it needs a number of essential nutrients, from the right ratio of proteins, fats and carbohydrates to vitamins, minerals and water. Micronutrients such as iron, zinc, choline, iodine, folate, B12 and healthy fats are also vital for cognitive development and learning.

Without proper nutrition, the healthy development of children is at risk. Nutrient deficiencies can reduce brain cell production, affect cell size and complexity, and even lead to less effective communication between brain cells. This could result in slower language development, impaired fine motor skills and a lower IQ, all of which have negative effects on a child’s life in and out of the classroom.

The right balance of nutrients early in life is critical for brain development and supports cognitive development long into adulthood.

Photo: WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud/2019

Children at Morakhola government primary school in Bangladesh WFP school meals.

Child malnutrition is harmful to health, academics and well-being

Today, 45 million children suffer from severe malnutrition. Without treatment, they could experience delayed cognitive development, which can harm their academic performance for years to come.

School meals are an essential intervention for the healthy development of children. Yet 73 million primary school children living in extreme poverty do not have access to school meals.

When children do not have access to food at school, it leads to a vicious cycle of hunger, absenteeism and poverty. There are millions of children – especially girls – who do not go to school because their families need them to help in the fields, take care of siblings or do household chores. Children in war-torn countries are twice as likely to be out of school as their peers in stable countries. It is 2.5 times more likely in girls. When children miss school, they miss out on important developmental milestones, such as understanding basic math concepts or reading and writing skills.

“The daily meal serves as a very, very strong incentive for families to send their children to school,” Segar said. “But by providing these meals to children, we’re seeing about a 9% increase in enrollment (12% for girls).”

WFP school meals save lives and improve futures

Nutritious school meals can change a child’s life. These foods help fight hunger, malnutrition and poverty by providing vital nutrition, supporting schooling and lifelong learning, and promoting long-term health and well-being. School meals also increase attendance and graduation rates by providing students with the nutrition they need to stay healthy, strong and able to focus on their studies.

The UN World Food Program helps keep millions of children in class and focused on their lessons by providing nutritious school meals, snacks and take-home ingredients. We are the world’s largest provider of school meals, reaching more than 20 million children in 59 countries around the world.

school meals: Increase school enrollment and attendance: In Bangladesh, nutrient-enriched crackers improved school enrollment by 14.2% and reduced the likelihood of dropping out by 7.5%. In Madagascar, attendance increased from 88% to 98% within two years of the introduction of take-home rations.

Improve children’s attention: In South Sudan, thirteen-year-old Joyce wants to become a pilot when she grows up. “I like going to school because I like learning and being with my friends,” she says. “I like the food here because it helps me study better.

Joyce Sawa studies at Torit Model Primary School in South Sudan, where WFP provides school meals.

Reduce the financial burden: James is another student at Joyce’s school. He hopes to become a doctor one day. “I lost my father and my family doesn’t have much money,” he says. “So I work as a boda boda (motorcycle) driver to pay for my education and support my family. A daily school lunch means one less meal for James and his siblings to worry about each day.

Photo: WFP/Eulalia Berlanga

James Oturi is in Grade 8 at Grace Community School in South Sudan, where WFP provides school meals.

Impact of school meals on poverty and social change

School meals help alleviate poverty and offset social norms that keep young girls out of the classroom. The value of a school meal is equal to about 10% of a household’s income. This means parents can save their money for other urgent needs. These savings also motivate parents to send their children, including girls, to school every day.

In Cambodia, with clouds of red dust at their heels, 14-year-old Heng Ouy and her 12-year-old sister Sheya ride to school every morning on second-hand bicycles. Their parents had to put five months of savings into buying each bike. Money is tight at home, so the school breakfast Hengy Ouy and Shreya receive every day is a huge help to their family. “When I grow up, I want to be a teacher,” says Heng Ouy. “I want to help my parents so they don’t have to fight anymore.”

Photo: WFP/Samantha Reinders

Ouy Heng and her sister are both beneficiaries of a WFP-funded school feeding program at Bos Thom School in Cambodia.

“Wherever we introduce school meals, we see that girls disproportionately stay in school longer,” says Carmen Burbano de Lara, director of the school meals division at the UN World Food Program headquarters in Rome. “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 head start.”

School meal programs can strengthen local economies. Through the United Nations World Food Programme’s Homemade School Meals programme, ingredients for school meals are sourced from smallholder farmers. This strengthens economies and fights poverty by increasing farmers’ incomes. Every dollar invested in school meals generates an economic return of up to $10 in the communities we serve.

School meals can empower an entire generation

Well-nourished and educated children are better equipped to grow up to find jobs, become leaders in their communities, and raise families of their own. By continuing to study, stay in school and avoid the irreversible effects of childhood malnutrition, children develop the cognitive, physical and social skills to build healthy and productive lives for themselves and their communities.

With something as simple and essential as school meals, we are empowering a new generation of doctors, scientists, inventors, teachers, artists, leaders and more.

Find out more about school meals

Read more about childhood malnutrition

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