School meals key to feeding, educating most vulnerable children: UN report

09:35, November 25, 2009      

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The introduction of free meal programs not only ensures children are fed, but are crucial to keeping the poorest and most vulnerable in school while providing a boost to learning and health, according to a United Nations report released Tuesday.

The new report from the World Bank and the World Food Program (WFP) noted that although most countries offer meals to their students, poor nations face a double obstacle of expanding under-funded feeding programs while battling the worst effects of the financial, food, and fuel crises, with little support from the international aid community, Michele Montas, the UN spokesperson, told reporters here.

"In the face of global crises, we must now focus on how school feeding programs can be designed and implemented in a cost-effective and sustainable way to benefit and protect those most in need of help today and in the future," said World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick in a foreword to the Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector report.

The report noted that school meal programs are most effective when twinned with other measures such as de-worming and provision of micronutrient-fortified snacks and biscuits, or vitamin supplements.

In many countries, such programs -- along with abolition of school fees -- are key incentives for children to attend school, especially girls and the poorest. A recent study of WFP data from 32 countries in sub-Saharan Africa showed that girls' enrollments went up by 28 percent, twice the rate in schools not receiving assistance.

In addition, combining on-site school meals and take-home rations for a student's family prompted girls' enrollment in the highest grade of primary school to surge by 46 percent, twice the yearly rate for girls in schools offering only on-site meals.

The study also found that older girls are less likely to drop out, and that girls in general are more likely to stay in class throughout primary school when they bring food home to their families on top of their school meals.

"At this critical hour of rising need, nations must stand together to help those who most risk tipping into crisis," said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran in her forward to Tuesday's report.

"Nations such as Brazil and China have demonstrated that social safety net programs like school meals help protect nutritionally vulnerable children and ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable do not plunge into destitution," said Sheeran.

"In partnership with the World Bank, WFP is working with nations to create the next generation of school meal programs that are sustainable and effective -- drawing, where possible, from the produce of local farmers," she added.

Source: Xinhua
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