We Need to Expand the School Meal Programs That Are Feeding Asia’s Future

School lunch programs are one of the most effective ways to help vulnerable families. Photo: ADB
School lunch programs are one of the most effective ways to help vulnerable families. Photo: ADB

By Kazuko Ogasahara, Milan Thomas

International School Meals Day is an opportunity to support the world’s largest social safety net, which benefits 388 million children worldwide.

When schools all over the world closed to contain the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, much of the concern was understandably for children’s education. Indeed, the pandemic has been a major setback for learning in many countries, especially for students from low-income households that have constraints on their ability to participate in remote instruction. 

But school closures have had another consequence that is less obvious but just as devastating: hundreds of millions of children were deprived of the meals that they had been receiving as part of their daily school routine.  

School meal programs took off in the 20th century in Europe and have grown more recently in developing countries.  Today, school feeding is the largest global social safety net, benefiting 388 million children worldwide.

The World Food Programme (WFP) reports that 161 of the 163 countries for which data were available have school meal programs. It estimates 48% of children are covered by school meals globally, but national coverage rates vary widely. As of 2020, it is 20% in low-income countries, 45% in lower middle-income countries, 58% in upper middle-income countries, and 78% in high-income countries. 

Coverage rates tend to be lowest in the countries with high rates of poverty, stunting, and anemia. There is room for improvement not only in terms of coverage, but in terms of nutritional balance of meals. But in the ten years prior to the pandemic there was progress in expanding and improving school meal programs where they are most needed. 

 School meal programs have become platforms for providing children with nutritious food and preparing them for healthy, productive lives. The form of school meal program varies by government. Some provide universal free meals (India, Republic of Korea), while others provide meals targeted to low-income students (Malaysia). Some provide free school meals, while others provide reduced-price meals. Some provide multiple meals per day, while others provide solely lunch. These determinations typically reflect national circumstances. 

For instance, in Bhutan, many schools offer three meals a day because of the prevalence of student boarding – a necessity in the sparsely populated country where many students live too far from the nearest school to reasonably commute on a daily basis. 

But what is common across all cases is the need for balanced meals that provide sufficient dietary diversity to prevent malnutrition. Just like for coverage, richer countries unsurprisingly tend to perform best when it comes to nutritional content. 

 School meal programs are especially effective when complemented with nutrition education. Population nutrition deficiencies do not simply go away as countries reach higher levels of economic development, as demonstrated by the prevalence of obesity in the United States and other advanced economies. 

Putting public money where students’ mouths are is a sound investment, not only for direct health benefits, but for strengthening education outcomes and local agriculture

In Japan, school meals are coupled with education programs on nutrition and food production. This combination has been effective in building a citizenry that is both healthy and nutrition-literate. Japan enacted its School Lunch Program Act in 1954, establishing school meals as a pillar of children’s cognitive and physical development. Today, 96% of elementary and junior high school students receive school lunch services, and the program enlists dietitians to educate children on nutrition – an approach whose merits are evident in Japan’s low malnutrition and obesity rates.

School meal programs are social safety nets because while food security will always remain vulnerable to climate change, conflicts, and other nation-wide emergencies, school meal programs ensure that students are at least protected from their household’s individual circumstances. A bad harvest or an unfortunate loss of income does not mean a child goes hungry.

COVID-19 school closures have demonstrated the value of school meal programs in ensuring schools are places of equal opportunity. Just as the closures have disproportionately affected low-income students on the learning front, they have had a regressive impact on children’s access to nutrition.

And there is growing evidence that putting public money where students’ mouths are is a sound investment, not only for direct health benefits, but for strengthening education outcomes and local agriculture.

WFP’s review of evidence finds that in a wide range of countries, school meal programs have been proven to support students’ health, enrolment, and attendance. The first impact demonstrates the importance of nutrition as a component of achieving Universal Health Coverage, while the last two impacts show that when school meals are provided, education and health mutually reinforce each other.

While most of the countries in which less than 80% of children receive school meals are in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are a few in South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.

To bring these vital meals to the children who need them,  governments with limited resources can partner with the private sector or NGOs to provide school meals, invest in agriculture technology and rural infrastructure to boost food production, and take an evidence-based approach to designing cost-effective school meals. Innovations like SMP PLUS use artificial intelligence to create school menus that maximize nutritional value under budget constraints.

As the world emerges from COVID-19 and governments mount their socioeconomic recovery plans, ensuring that school meal programs grow in their coverage and nutrition content will be essential for ensuring schools live up to their promise as the launching pad for prosperous and equitable societies.