By Tracy Pannozzo, Humanitas Global
Children in every country around the world brave the devastating effects of hunger and malnutrition. Of deaths under five, 45% can be attributed to poor nutrition, and even children who beat the odds early in life often continue to live in a state of hunger. The World Food Programme reports that 66 million primary school-age children in developing countries go to class hungry.
Even in developed countries, hunger and undernutrition are prevalent among young learners. In the United States, 1 in 5 children, or 16 million, come from food insecure homes where they do not have adequate nutrition or enough to eat.
It’s a serious problem. Hunger and malnutrition stagnate the learning ability of the world’s youngest students. If a child goes to school hungry, she can’t focus. If she can’t focus, she can’t learn. A 2013 study by the NUTRIMENTHE group detailed the incredibly important role that nutrition plays in the structural and functional development of the human brain—starting in the womb, continuing through childhood and into adulthood.
Malnutrition robs a child’s potential by causing delays in motor and cognitive development—leaving her to struggle with major learning disruptors such as attention deficit disorder, poor memory, and reduced problem-solving abilities. Certain nutrient deficiencies are proven to adversely impact a child’s classroom performance:
- Inadequate levels of iron in the diet leave children tired throughout the day and more prone to behavioral problems and poor performance in school.
- Zinc deficiency in children is associated with reduced cognitive and motor performance and with higher incidence of depression and attention deficit disorders.
- Not having enough iodine impacts a child’s brain development, drastically lowering IQ or in the worst cases, leading to mental retardation and irreversible brain damage.
- Insufficient vitamin A weakens the immune system and can lead to increased school absence. This particular deficiency affects nearly 163 million youth and is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children.
World leaders recently agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals – making no hunger and quality education high priorities. Already progress has been made. We know what nutrients children need in their diets to learn and thrive. We know where the hungriest and most undernourished live. We have a solid base of nutrition and public health research. And, a number of very smart individuals from around the globe have made serious investments of time and money to study ways to feed our children and provide them with healthy food options.
School lunches are one way to create a healthy learning environment.
The World Food Programme, UNICEF and Save the Children provide resources for school meals to help nations address malnutrition. Countries understand that school food programs provide the basis for a healthy learning environment. India and Namibia incorporate micronutrient fortification in school lunch and in foods popular among children outside of the classroom. Bolivia’s school meals have embraced natural, local and cultural foods—and the children themselves are requesting more fruits and vegetables. There are many success stories throughout the world.
Hunger and malnutrition solutions for school-age children address broader health challenges, too. Deficiencies in iron, vitamin A and zinc are ranked among the World Health Organization’s leading causes of death through disease in developing countries. School lunch programs that purchase from local farmers also fuel the local economy by creating and sustaining jobs. Daily school meals can provide a strong incentive to send children to school and keep them there. In areas with gender inequality, take-home rations can encourage families to send girls to school.
Zero hunger and quality education for all by 2030 are ambitious goals. To get there we need to work smart and be nimble in our thinking. Feeding programs that work and have the potential to be expanded and replicated need to be studied, documented and shared. Those who design and implement these programs at the Ministry and community levels also provide useful insights to countries examining their own school meal and nutrition policies.
If we invest in schools and nutrition and share our discoveries, failures and successes along the way – together, we can build a brighter future for all of the world’s little learners.