UN report highlights benefits of school meal programmes
New York: A United Nations report released on Saturday stresses the importance of providing meals for schoolchildren, particularly in times of crisis, and notes that this is still lacking in many developing countries.
"School feeding assures that where quality education is available, children are able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn," said executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Ertharin Cousin.
"It's an investment that pays off in the future with better-educated, stronger and healthier adults and its also a critical safety net to prevent the most vulnerable from suffering in times of crisis," she said.
India is among the countries where in most states children from underprivileged sections of the community are provided nutritious noon meals especially in government and government-aided schools, as part of the popular Midday Meal Scheme, a programme launched in 1960 by the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj to prevent school drop outs and increase attendance.
Until then, poor parents considered school going children as a burden and employed them in menial jobs denying them the right to education.
The State of School Feeding Worldwide report, produced by WFP, provides a global analysis of school feeding programmes in developed and developing nations, as well as data on how governments use school meals as a crisis safety net.
According to WFP, around 368 million children - about one in five - get a meal at school every day in 169 developing and developed countries.
But despite the global nature of school feeding, the coverage of these programmes is lowest where most needed.
In low-income countries, only 18 percent receive a daily meal at school, compared to nearly 49 percent of children in middle-income countries.
Global investment in these programmes is about USD 75 billion, with most coming from government budgets.
While this may seem like a large investment, the benefits are even greater as the report states that for every USD 1 spent by governments and donors, at least USD 3 is gained in economic returns.
Over the past five years, at least 38 countries have scaled up their school feeding programmes in response to a crisis, whether related to food prices, conflict, natural disaster or financial volatility.
"During the food and fuel crises in 2008 many governments struggled to protect the most vulnerable from hunger and looked to school meals to achieve that. In the current recession, even wealthy nations are examining how school meals can prevent families from sliding deeper into poverty and hunger," said the report's lead author Carmen Burbano.
WFP has been operating school meals programmes in developing countries for almost 50 years.
In 2012, the agency provided meals or nutritious snacks in school for 24.7 million children in 63 countries, including take-home rations for 1.3 million girls and 500,000 boys - providing an incentive for poor families to keep their children in class, rather than pull them out to work in the fields, factories or homes.