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Quick Facts

  • Adolescent girls in low-income countries often experience poor nutrition, which leaves them to face risks of both undernutrition and being overweight.
  • 90% of adolescent girls in South Asia lack sufficient intake of fruit and vegetables in their diets.
  • Half (50%) of adolescent girls in low—and middle-income countries do not eat three meals daily, with breakfast being the most commonly skipped meal.

On average, students who eat school meals achieve 18% higher scores on reading tests. Five UN agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Food Programme (WFP), are now, more than ever, encouraging school feeding programs worldwide to improve the health, nutrition and education of school-aged children worldwide.

In early 2020, before the pandemic, 388 million children benefited from local school feeding programs. However, the reach of school meals has become widespread, with 418 million children receiving more school meals worldwide, the largest population (125 million) of which are from parts of South Asia. For girls, access to school feeding programs can be life-changing in more ways than one. Yearly, over 15 million girls get married before the age of 18; that’s 41,000 girls daily. In South Asia, 8% of girls marry at 15, while 29% marry by 18. Bangladesh alone has the highest rates of child marriage, with over 34.5 million child brides, 13.4 million of whom are below 15 years old. When girls attend school, the World Economic Forum found that the rate of child marriage can drop by one-third.

More than this, girls often face gender disparities, which often limit their access to education. A UN World Food Programme report shows that introducing school meals alone increases enrolment and attendance rates, especially for girls, by 9% and 8%, respectively. In Bangladesh, the school enrollment rate for girls increased by 44% in schools offering school meals and only 2.5% where school meal programs are less practiced. Beyond the classroom, school feeding programs can transform entire communities. A recent World Bank reveals that if every girl child completes high school education, they could boost the global economy by up to $30 trillion.

As school feeding programs help girls thrive academically and socially, so does its impact extend towards empowering mothers. Interestingly, the First International School Meals Day proposed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) falls on March 8, International Women’s Day, which is quite fitting because one big advantage of school feeding is it relieves a significant burden from mothers who often struggle to provide nutritious meals for their families. With their children receiving at least one healthy meal at school, mothers can redirect scarce resources towards other essentials like healthcare and education. This alleviation of financial stress empowers mothers to invest in their well-being and pursue personal and professional growth opportunities.

For example, around 116 million children in India benefit from the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) free school meal program. Studies suggest that women who received free school meals during primary education could produce children with better physical growth. This has been particularly advantageous since 38% of children in India were reported to have stunted growth between 2015 and 1016.

School feeding programs are not just about filling empty stomachs; they challenge gender norms by ensuring that all children, regardless of gender, receive equal access to nutritious meals, promoting gender equity and inclusion. It has become a platform for ensuring children, especially girls, get the necessary nutrients they need to live productive and healthy lives.

The impact of school feeding actively contributes to ensuring no child goes hungry and that every girl has the support needed to reach their full potential. By investing in school feeding programs, we invest in girls’ health, education, and empowerment, laying the foundation for stronger, more equitable communities today and tomorrow.