By Tilda Janbrink

In January 2021, Unicef and the World Food Program (WFP) published the report “Covid-19: Missing more than a classroom”. The report presented some alarming numbers: as a result of schools closing in an attempt to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, about 370 million children around the world have missed approximately 40 percent of all the school meals they otherwise would have received. And that’s only in 2020.

The fact that closing schools has such a severe impact on children – to the degree where millions of them risk undernourishment from the lack of access to healthy food – raises important questions concerning school meals in general. While many schools around the world serve food in their cafeterias, students more often than not have to pay for it. Some countries, such as the UK, offer the option of receiving free school meals to low-income families. Although this may seem like a good solution on paper, to be a recipient of free school meals is often associated with great stigma, as it signals that you come from a low-income household. This causes many children to prefer bringing their own packed lunch to school or to simply pay full price for cafeteria food. As of now, Sweden is one of few countries that serve free food to all students irrespective of family income. This is perplexing considering the many advantages of serving free meals in school.

Studies have shown that children who receive healthy meals in school perform better in class and score higher on tests. It goes without saying that it is easier to focus on the task at hand when you’re not hungry, but the benefits of school meals extend beyond that. Food rich in essential nutrients such as iron can help improve children’s cognitive capacity and ability to learn. Moreover, school meals can also serve as a motivational factor. In many low income-countries, poor families are reluctant to send their children to school since their economy requires the children to stay at home and work. However, if the school provides free lunches that means the family will have one less mouth to feed – which is sometimes enough to tip the scale. In extension, serving free food in school becomes a way to reduce inequality as it gives socioeconomically marginalized children the opportunity to receive a proper education.

The only real downside of serving free food in school is – you guessed it: that it costs the government money. Even so, this argument does not hold in the long run. According to the WFP, initiatives to fund free school meals, such as school meals programmes, actually end up generating more money than they cost. In 2015, the WFP conducted a study where they evaluated a sample of ten of their school meals programmes. The results indicated that children who receive food in school are healthier and tend to be more productive once they start working after graduation. Moreover, when local products were used in producing the school meals, this boosted the rural economies. According to the study, every US dollar invested in providing school meals brought back an average economic return of between three to eight US dollars. This information in itself should provide more than enough incentives for governments to invest in free school meals.

Undernourishment is not an issue that can be resolved solely by serving free lunch in school. It can however be a significant step on the way. Adding to this the fact that there are lasting economic benefits, it is pretty safe to say that investing in school meals is a deal where everyone walks out a winner.

By Tilda Janbrink

Illustration: Nicole Nordström

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