The facts speak for themselves, around 60 million children across the developing world still go to school hungry everyday - 40% of them in Africa. The importance of food for young children is well known - malnourished pre-school children are more at risk of contracting illnesses such as diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia, are more likely to grow to be shorter adults and give birth to low birth weight offspring. Child undernutrition is a critical barrier to economic development: impaired cognitive function leads to reduced educational performance and lower economic productivity.
Hungry children are less likely to go to school, or to learn while there. Coupled with this is the fact that the more healthy a child is the better it will learn. School health and nutrition interventions have been shown to improve not only children's health and nutrition, but also their learning potential both in the short- and long-term. As such, they are recognised by such bodies as the High Level Group meeting of Education for All as making a significant contribution towards countries' efforts to achieve Education for All and Millennium Development Goals.
School feeding programmes which seek to reach and feed all children already exist; however in places where they are most needed they are often too small, unsustainable and unable to offer nutritious food. In the same communities, smallholder farmers, often unable to reach a market, struggle to make a living selling their food.
The solution is clear: local food for local children creating local markets for local farmers.
A new revolution is underway known as 'Home Grown School Feeding' (HGSF). As global leaders in school health and nutrition programmes, the Partnership for Child Development (PCD) at Imperial College London, the World Bank and the World Food Programme (WFP) are working with governments, communities and agencies to enable effective and sustainable HGSF programmes to feed millions of children every day.
To share more information about this work, and to raise awareness about HGSF approaches, both of us, as well as John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, and other experts, will speak at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development today.
The meeting is very timely. In response to the food, fuel, and financial crisis, school feeding is increasingly taking hold, with donor-funded initiatives becoming nationally-run programmes across the globe, in places as diverse as India and Senegal. The World Bank, WFP and PCD have been studying carefully the findings from these programmes and others, and set them out in a joint publication 'Rethinking School Feeding'.
HGSF programmes are particularly innovative because they provide an opportunity to benefit both schoolchildren and smallholder farmers by creating a stable, structured market for local produce. The advantages of linking local agriculture and school feeding are substantial: more prosperous smallholder farmers, with a more secure future; stronger rural communities, with more stable economies; increased demand for local, fresh food; and healthier, happier children.
One example of a successful HGSF programme that is looking to expand nationally is the Ghana School Feeding Programme. Launched by President Kufuor, the programme provides one nutritious locally produced meal a day for school children from primary to secondary school (ages 4 to 14). By delivering nutritious food at school, this programme has dramatically reduced the level of chronic hunger and malnutrition while improving attendance. By the end of 2010, approximately 1.04 million primary school children were participating and benefitting from this programme.
HGSF has already delivered strong development outcomes, but there are still several important gaps in our current knowledge about the effectiveness of HGSF. Many of the educational benefits of school feeding have already been established, including improved enrolment, attendance, educational achievement and cognition. However, less is known about areas such as the nutritional impact of using local foods, entrepreneurial opportunities across the supply chain, and income gain for smallholder farmers. Additionally, complementary activities such as school-based deworming and nutrition education could provide further opportunities to address common health problems of school-aged children in a comprehensive manner.
Aligning knowledge systems and approaches across sectors is notoriously difficult. HGSF requires a complex level of political will and cooperation which will not be easy to achieve at scale. Nevertheless the benefits of linking expertise and good practice on agriculture, health and education are surely worth fighting for: and for many countries their future economic development depends on it.