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School feeding in east and southern Africa: Improving food sovereignty or photo opportunity?

  • Published on May 23, 2022

In 2006 the Regional Network for Equity in Health in east and southern Africa (EQUINET) and the Health Systems Research Unit of Medical Research Council (MRC), South Africa commissioned a series of country case studies on existing food security and nutrition programmes in the region that demonstrate good practice in health systems promotion of food sovereignty and equity. This report outlines one of the case studies.

Health and education are the two cornerstones of human capital and form the basis of an individual’s economic productivity. Both are valuable instruments in ensuring a healthy economy and creating a literate society. While school feeding interventions fall squarely within the scope of school health initiatives, programmes addressing school health are much wider in scope than school feeding and may include de-worming, HIV/AIDS prevention and education, life and health skills education, and interventions aimed at reducing alcohol or drug consumption. Proponents of school feeding point to a variety of logistical, empirical and moral factors that suggest the need for school feeding:

• The school is an important and convenient setting where health and education

interventions can be implemented.

• In principle, SFPs improve educational outcomes such as the number of years spent

in school.

• The association between low-achieving children and less regular breakfast meals.

• Micronutrient deficiencies, such as iodine deficiency, have been associated with poor

performance on various achievement tests.

• Improvements in female literacy are associated with declining fertility and greater

agricultural output.

• A 1% decrease in infant mortality levels for every extra year of schooling for a motherto-


SFPs remain controversial – theoretically, politically and in terms of effectiveness of

implementation. Problems include the following:

• There are methodological shortcomings in studies that purport to have found an

association between hunger and school performance.

• The World Bank has argued that there is little evidence that school feeding

programmes have a positive impact on nutrition for participating children.

• School feeding programmes benefit children in terms of increased school enrolment

(particularly for girls) and they help to keep children at school, but they have no

impact on the root causes of malnutrition and hunger.

• The timing of any intervention is problematic, particularly in contexts where food aid is

finite. Food aid should be targeted at children under three years of age so as to

ensure an appropriate developmental trajectory throughout life.

• Serious reservations remain about whether or not governments in resource-poor

settings should be allocating resources to school feeding at all and, if they do,

whether or not priority should be given to younger children.

In order to situate the discussion of a possible alternative model to current SPFs, the SFPs in two African countries are discussed in some detail.

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