Fortified maize porridge, beans, vegetables, and a bit of meat — for students at the Kibirizi primary school in the Nyamagabe district of southern Rwanda, this meal is what’s on the menu for lunch every school day.
Julienne, a 15-year-old student at the school, has noticed the difference that fortified maize has made in her own well-being following a program piloted by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Rockefeller Foundation.
She’s felt stronger since eating it, and now her parents want to bring some of it home to feed to her siblings.
Previously, maize was mostly a source of carbohydrates for the students. Now it carries essential vitamins and minerals. Fortifying food like this has been used for decades as a cheap and proven method of boosting childhood health. But WFP’s initiative underscores a broader fact — well-funded school meal programs are ultimately an exercise in community empowerment, an investment in the future. From conception to consumption, school meal programs help to transform communities.
Local smallholder farmers receive a stable income by partnering with the government to supply crops to schools for meal programs. Preparing, cooking, transporting, and serving school meals generates jobs for community members. Local families save money when their kids eat at school. Staying well-fed allowed the students to stay focused and healthy throughout the school day, eventually setting them up for a lifetime of success.
Over the years, benefits accrue. For every $1 invested in school meal programs, communities receive $9 in economic returns, and the non-economic benefits are even greater. This is especially true for young girls like Julienne who are by far the biggest beneficiaries of school meal programs.
Around the world, girls are structurally excluded from school in ways that boys aren’t. In fact, 129 million girls, including 32 million girls of primary school age, are unable to attend school for reasons that range from the familial and cultural (being put to work or married off at an early age) to the governmental (schools not accommodating girls beyond a certain age) and geopolitical (conflicts and disasters).
As simple as they seem, school meals can cut through all of these barriers, helping to put girls back in the classroom and facilitating their success.
Most immediately, they create a financial incentive for sending children to school. Food is often a major household expense and billions of people worldwide struggle to afford a healthy diet. When schools promise nutritious school meals, parents who might otherwise withdraw their daughters might rationalize that it makes more financial sense to let them learn instead.
This dynamic can also shield girls from early marriage. Globally, 1 in 5 girls is married as a child. If girls are getting nutritious meals at school, while also saving their families money, then the incentives of child marriage — in particular, getting money for your daughter — weaken.
"In Mid and Far Western Nepal, many families don't have enough food and poor parents often struggle to feed their children," Pippa Bradford, WFP Country Director, said when discussing school meal programs in Nepal, a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in Asia. "A child can't learn if all she's thinking about is her empty stomach. School meals act as an incentive for parents to send their children to school, especially girls, and help to break the cycle of hunger and poverty."
When girls receive encouragement from their parents to stay in school, then a larger constituency for their well-being emerges and gender-specific accommodations such as accessible period products and safety from sexual harassment may be prioritized by schools.
Schools overall may begin to change because it’s not just that girls are actively barred from learning. They also face discrimination while inside the classroom, where sexist myths about their capacity to engage in STEM, for example, continue to limit their potential. As more girls remain in school and demonstrate their worth, these harmful stereotypes will gradually wane.
Sometimes catastrophic events such as war or hurricanes prevent girls from attending schools. These disasters can often have drawn-out consequences as families get displaced, schools get ruined, and communities have to rebuild in the aftermath. Returning to school in these contexts can seem like a distant priority.
But nutritious meals — because they combat hunger — can spur families to get their kids back in school.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 370 million children lost access to school meals either temporarily or for extended periods of time. This rupture contributed to the soaring rates of hunger seen around the world. But many lunch programs adapted, and their continuity during this public health crisis helped families survive. Now, as schools resume in-person learning, the lifeline of daily meals is helping to restore attendance.
These are the short-term benefits of school meals — keeping girls in the classroom and improving their learning experience.
But over time, as hundreds of millions of girls pursue higher forms of education, communities and entire societies become transformed. For every extra year of schooling, girls become more financially independent, less likely to be married and have children at a young age, and less likely to face health problems.
In other words, when girls learn, it helps to break the cycle of poverty.
Disclosure: The World Food Programme and Rockefeller Foundation are funding partners of Global Citizen.