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One question driving University of Arizona research anthropologist Timothy J. Finan's evaluation of school feeding programs in high-poverty and developing countries is: "What can be done with a sack of rice if creative programming rules the day?"
The question carries an implication in sharp contrast to the historic philosophy that advances the school meal merely as a means to prevent hunger.
Finan more strongly argues for moving such programs out of an assistance-based model into one that can lead to sustainable, long-term development improvements.
But this requires rethinking the function of schools and the involvement of families and other community members, said Finan of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, or BARA, at the UA School of Anthropology.
Commissioned by the United Nations World Food Programme, or WFP, Finan and his collaborators have spent years evaluating the impact of such programs on children, families and community vitality in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia.
"School feeding is not adequate enough to keep a student in school," said Finan, who has reported his findings to the WFP Office of Evaluation.
But with better integration and community involvement, "there are measurable impacts on education, nutrition and even on the household well being," he said.
In addition to providing nutritious meals for children, the WFP reported four other major benefits of school feeding programs: They help draw children to schools, aiding in the educational purposes; they boost gender equality by helping expand access to education; they reduce strain on households; and they contribute to local communities, especially when involving farmers and others.
To better understand the connection between school meals and development, Finan and his team members have interviewed agency and government officials, teachers, community members and others where school meals – often in the form of bulgur wheat, peas, yellow split peas, salt and vegetable oil – have been offered.
They also have evaluated the health of youth through measures of weight, body mass and other factors.
Much of the research has been conducted in semi-arid, drought-affected regions with strong pastoral communities with strong traditional values. In some cases, the programs were being implemented in regions experiencing civil unrest at schools with no supplemental materials for learning.
"We're talking about very extreme conditions here," Finan said, noting recording benefits including improved school attendance, academic performance and completion rates. Also, such programs can also reduce the financial strain on families.
And in a study on programs in Kenya, Finan cited what he termed the "reverse flow effect," groups of graduating students who had previous benefited from school feeding programs now making major contributions to their home communities.
"What I have learned is that the potential lies in changing the way we think about the schools," Finan said, noting that, in most cases, such schools are government-assisted with limited hours.
"This is in contrast to the U.S. where you will find schools are open after hours and have plays, athletics and other events or even leadership classes for the adults," Finan said.
"The school has to be a community learning center," he also said, noting that some are currently experimenting with programs to better engage families and other community members. "The best modality for the food program is to have the family involved."
In effect, feeding programs could then serve as the "magnet" and a "catalyst for community mobilization" that leads to development and also improved health and educational benefits, he said.
It is an important proposal.
In certain countries around the world, school feeding programs are attempting to address what remains a pervasive and troubling global problem.
A 2010 United Nations Summit report on child mortality noted that in addition to inadequate health care and lacking access to sanitation and clear water, the greatest cause of child deaths in developing countries is malnutrition.
The report also noted a decline in the number of children in such countries who die before the age of 5, but emphasized that the numbers who die are still too high. "Almost 9 million children still die each year before they reach their fifth birthday," the report noted.
But Finan offers additional warning about implementing school feeding programs.
"School meals must be included with other development methods," said Finan, who also said organizations must improve mechanisms to both evaluate progress and to report the success of feeding programs. "The school meal cannot be expected to achieve all of these outcomes alone."