Achieving Universal Primary Education and Reducing Hunger Through School Feeding Programs

Ensuring that all boys and girls complete primary schooling is the target of the second Millennium Development Goal (MDG)—achieving universal primary education. To date, the developing world has made great strides in reaching that goal. According to the U.N. 2009 Millennium Development Goal Report, there was progress in universal primary enrollment from 83 percent in 2000 to 88 percent in 2007 in all developing countries. And according to the World Development Indicators, enrollment levels for sub-Saharan Africa rose from 58 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2007.

Despite these gains, there is still much more progress to be made. The major obstacle to achieving universal primary education arises from the unequal opportunities resulting from biases based on gender, ethnicity, income, language and disabilities. Children from the poorest communities and girls are the most likely to lose. One major problem in many developing countries is that school programs are underfinanced and under-sourced, and therefore they fail to deliver good quality education, which leads to dropouts. For example, the 2009 World Development Indicators find that only half of all primary school pupils in Uganda, who start primary grade 1, reach grade 5. Moreover, the survival rate to the last grade (grade 7) as percent of the cohort fell from 39 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2004. The situation was mirrored across other African countries.

Reasons for truancy and school dropout of children from poor households are similar across Africa and they include lack of school feeding, supplies and teachers. Other reasons stem from responsibilities at home and pressure to earn additional income. This is worse for girls who face greater pressure to help out in the home, and also face danger from pregnancy or disease from older males in the community who take advantage of them.

At the most basic level, however, African governments (with the help of the donor community) can go a long way in improving school enrollment and retention through school feeding programs. African governments should provide meals to school children from food purchased from the local communities.

In most public schools in Africa, the government does not currently provide meals to pupils. And according to the 2009 State of Uganda Population Report, about 40 percent of deaths among children are due to malnutrition, partly caused by food insecurity. The prevalence of undernourishment in the population was 15 percent in 2005, which is high by any standards. This impedes mental and physical development and impairs cognitive functions. School feeding programs can address undernourishment of children across the board, while encouraging attendance in school and reducing strain at home (less food that families need to provide). The numerous benefits from school feeding include:

1) A source of additional resources to households for consumption and investment (some form of safety net). Money saved from school feeding could lead to added household incomes (higher savings) that may then be invested in productive assets leading to higher returns.

2) An increase in time spent in school through increased enrollment, attendance and decreased dropout rates. A study by the World Food Program in Laos showed through school feeding programs, attendance increased by 5.5 percent per year, enrollment by 16 percent and dropout fell by 9 percent.

3) An increase in cognition and improved learning. According to the World Food Program, school feeding leads to an increase in cognition through test scores and an increase in wages over productive life (Kristjansson et al. 2007).

4) Improved micronutrient status and health; decreased prevalence of intestinal parasites. If children are better nourished they are accordingly less sick, which leads to better quality of life and fewer days of school missed due to illness. Studies also show that one year of additional schooling raises disease awareness (in particular related to HIV) and decreases HIV prevalence by 6.7 percent (De Walque, 2004), leading to longer life expectancy and higher productivity.

5) Multiplicative effects on future productivity and income. A World Bank report shows that every additional year of primary schooling leads to a 5 percent increase in future wages, that is, well-fed children of primary school age are healthier and more productive during their future working years. School feeding also provides multiplicative effects for the community in the form of increased future employment rates (direct and indirect), ready markets for rural famers to supply food for school meals, and increased food production and household savings.

School feeding is a unique safety net driven by the interdependence between various outcomes, and combines short- and long-term benefits from nutrition, education and value transfer. School feeding programs also go far in directly contributing to multiple MDGs in terms of reducing hunger, increasing universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity. As we approach the upcoming MDG summit, developed countries would do well to encourage and support school feeding as part of developing countries’ national strategies.



Ahmed, A.U. (2004), “The Impact of Feeding Children in School: Evidence from Bangladesh.” Washington DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

De Walque, Damien, (2004), How does the Impact of an HIV/AIDS Information Campaign vary with Educational Attainment? Evidence from Rural Uganda, World Bank 2004.

Kristjansson, E.A., V. Robinson, M. Petticrew, B. MacDonald, J. Krasevec, L. Janzen, T. Greenhalgh, G. Wells, J. MacGowan, A. Farmer, B.J. Shea, A. Mayhew, and P. Tugwell. (2007) School Feeding for Improving the Physical and Psychosocial Health of Disadvantaged Students. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: 1

World Bank, (2009), Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector, Washington DC.

World Food Program 2009, School Feeding: A Sound Investment

World Food Program 2009, Learning from Experience: Good Practices from 45 years of School Feeding