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How school meals are changing lives across Africa

December 06, 2023
topic:Food Security
tags:#Kenya, #food security, #Africa, #education
by:Joseph Maina
In Kenya and beyond, school feeding plays a critical role in both education and nutrition, experts highlight.

Families across Africa struggle to provide three daily meals for their children, which adversely affects their growth and education.

In Kenya, one way to bridge this gap has been through school feeding programmes, which are deployed in particularly vulnerable communities where access to food remains a challenge for many households.

A combination of factors contribute to the high rates of hunger and thirst in the East African nation, including high inflation, climate change, conflicts and mass displacement, all of which were exacerbated in recent years by a severe drought.

According to a March 2023 report, up to 17 per cent of Kenyans are currently going to bed hungry.

Why School feeding?

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) recognises school feeding as a crucial safety net that addresses hunger and promotes education, health and community development. The African Union (AU) also lauds school feeding programmes as transformative for Africa's school children, highlighting that over 65 million children on the continent received a nutritious daily meal in schools in 2019 alone.

Since the launch of a nationwide programme in 1979 that offered free milk to children in primary schools, Kenya has continued to implement diverse strategies to ensure meal access for school children. The original programme was ultimately discontinued in the 1990s, , however, having faced political challenges and infrastructural drawbacks, such as deteriorated roads that hindered access to remote schools and reduced funding over the years.

A variety of models

Today, Kenya runs diverse models to supply meals to schoolchildren. These include collaborations between state and non-state entities, philanthropic initiatives supported by donor funding and partnerships between individual schools and parents to subsidise school feeding programmes.

"School feeding programmes encompass a diverse array of designs, implementation arrangements and management structures," the AU stated in a 2018 study. "These programmes can either be nationally owned or administered by international organisations. Occasionally, they can be run through a partnership between a national government and international or non-governmental organisations."

For example, in March 2023, the Laikipia County Development Authority (LCDA) partnered with Italian charity Africa Nel Cuore to provide daily nutritious meals to kindergarten-age school children affected by drought in the county, hoping it would improve student attendance and retention and increase enrollment rates.

"The County Government approached our organisation with the aim of feeding Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) centres with fortified nutritious flour," Annie Munyi, Chairperson of Africa Nel Cuore, told FairPlanet.

"The NGO adopted the idea of specialised porridge and a collaboration was formed. This special porridge is a blend of corn, soya beans, sorghum and sugar. So far, the programme has been helping 23 ECDE and primary schools in the Rumuruti area with a total population of 11,484 children."

Munyi said that enrollment in primary schools in Laikipia County was 94,100 in 2019, out of which nearly 70,000 pupils were determined to be in need of food assistance. 

The regional government of Nyandarua County also implemented an ambitious school feeding initiative that offered free milk twice a week to children in public kindergartens. Launched in 2018, the programme, benefitting 26,000 children, aimed to enhance both the mental and physical development of youngsters in the region, addressing the historical issue of stunted growth associated with inadequate nutrition.

In June 2023, Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, introduced a school feeding programme for public schools within the city county. This initiative, a joint effort between the Nairobi city government and the national government, funded by the national treasury, aims to benefit 1.9 million school children across all public schools in the county.

Meanwhile, various NGO-run school feeding initiatives are being implemented across country. For instance, Kenya Kids Can, a charity, partnered with local communities to provide a hot daily lunch of maize and beans, serving over 21,000 children in 37 primary schools.

Many of these programmes have registered success, most notably in terms of boosting school enrollment and enhancing the retention of pupils.

The 'Nyayo' free milk feeding programme initiated in 1979 benefitted nearly four million students in primary schools and ran until 1998. Student enrolment rose by up to 23 per cent during the  programme's first year, particularly in rural areas.

A continent-wide experiment

This trend isn't exclusive to Kenya, however, as similar school feeding programmes have been implemented across Africa. 

Botswana’s national school feeding programme, for instance, running for over five decades, reportedly provides a daily meal to over 330,000 children despite facing corruption and mismanagement allegations.

Over in South Africa, the country's National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) supplies over 9 million school students daily nutritious meals.

In Ghana, the government runs a unique decentralised model in which external caterers independently source and cook meals for school children. Research has shown that energy, nutrient and micronutrient intake were significantly higher among kids benefitting from the programme.

In Eastern Africa, school feeding interventions focus on student retention, particularly in drought-stricken areas in Ethiopia and Somalia.

In the Banadir region of Somalia, the Nomadic Assistance for Peace and Development (NAPAD) has reported enhanced school attendance and a rejuvenated student population. The organisation attributed this positive change to the provision of meals in schools, which, it claims, improved concentration and increased participation in class activities.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme recorded an increase of up to 100 per cent in school enrollment between 2010-2016 in some parts of Eastern Ethiopia, where school feeding programmes were being implemented to protect children from drought. 

"Some children would come to school without having taken breakfast at home, which prompted us to commence our school feeding program," Violet Muhanji, a teacher in Goodluck Children’s Centre in Kibra, an informal settlement in Nairobi, told FairPlanet.

"It was clear that, if a family could not afford breakfast for their child, it was quite possible that such a family could not afford lunch as well."

The school provides porridge for breakfast and a lunch consisting of alternating meals such as maize and beans or rice and vegetables. Funding for the programme comes from well-wishers who contribute both cash and food items.

"We’ve seen a remarkable improvement in the general outlook of the children we serve," Muhanji said. "Many children enrolled looking emaciated but after a while, the improvement in their health is visible in their faces and vigour. Our enrollment shot up from 18 pupils to over 50 today."

She added, "Prior to commencement of the programme, we would have at least 2 children dropping out of school every week. This has changed, and we no longer have children dropping out."

Overcoming hurdles

Muhanji highlighted that the programme faces challenges such as inadequate donor support, which puts a strain on available resources.

Additionally, she said, the school would benefit from a dining hall, as the children currently eat their meals in the open, and from energy-efficient cooking devices, such as specialised pots.

The school currently uses charcoal and gas for cooking, charcoal and gas for cooking, which she mentioned is rather expensive. 

"Prior to our school feeding programme, the children’s performance in tests and classwork was poor," she said. "We also witnessed poor participation in class and play activities by most of the children. But in the duration of the [...] programme, we have seen remarkable changes. The children are more vibrant in class and in the playground, and their performance in academics is satisfactory."

Phoebe Mijoso, an administrator of school feeding programmes in Kibera, also noted that the benefits of school feeding programmes have reflected in students’ performance. But to enhance school feeding programmes, she said, there is need for further financial support.

"Children tend to enroll more in schools that provide meals, which puts a strain on existing infrastructure," Mijoso told FairPlanet. "This creates a need for more classrooms, additional staff, cooking implements and foodstuff."

She added that government-run school feeding programmes should also consider supporting non-public schools, which is not the case at the moment. In addition, she argued, school feeding programmes should be empowered to produce their own food and offer a wider array of nutrient-rich food items.

"We have no land to grow our own food. We could produce food more cheaply if we had land. It would also help if schools could supplement current menus [and] incorporate a richer menu that would better improve the children’s health."

Image by Annie Munyi.

Article written by:
Joseph Maina
Joseph Maina
School children receive a consignent of food in Laikipia.
© Annie Munyi
School children receive a consignent of food in Laikipia.
Africa Nel Cuore Chairperson Anne Munyi.
Africa Nel Cuore Chairperson Anne Munyi.
Violet Muhanji, teacher at Goodluck Children´s Centre in Kibra, Nairobi.
Violet Muhanji, teacher at Goodluck Children´s Centre in Kibra, Nairobi.