School Food Matters

School Food Matters

This school food program in Eel Ground First Nation keeps kids nourished for better learning.

School food programs around the world reduce hunger, prevent malnutrition, and provide essential nutrition not always available at home.

School food programs can provide the only daily meal that children living in poverty may get.
According to the World Food Programme, approximately 300 million children in low- and middle-income countries – or about half of the world’s schoolchildren – receive a daily meal in school.

These program have numerous benefits, as noted by Canadian Feed The Children’s local partner in Uganda, UCOBAC:

“The school feeding program is providing a safety net for vulnerable children in our communities most of whom are orphans, some living with their grandparents who have limited strength to work and provide complete basic needs [including] food. The program … has helped to greatly improve children’s academic performance because of the higher number of academic contact hours between children and teachers. Absenteeism especially after lunch has gone down – children no longer escape like before in search of food which mostly used to be raw mangoes and sugarcane. … The practical lessons carried out in the school gardens are being replicated in homes.” –Teacher, Bukhohe Primary School, Uganda

School food programs play an important role in ensuring that child hunger is staunched each school day. However, they also help build a healthy, productive tomorrow for children and youth through:

  • Better health and nutritional status for students and the whole family
  • Better educational outcomes
  • Gender equality
  • Skills development for students, parents and caregivers
  • Community engagement
  • Alleviation of poverty for families and communities
  • Local economy-building and agricultural development

School food programs have long been a component of CFTC’s work in international locations and here in Canada. With generous support from donors, we have worked to maximize their benefits while also increasing the sustainability of these important nutrition boosters.

The benefits of school food
Adequate nutrition for better health and wellness

School meals improve all aspects of children’s health and well-being. Especially for the youngest children, adequate nutrition provided in early childhood care and development centres has a huge impact on fostering healthy child development. But children throughout primary and secondary grades all benefit from consistent, nutritious meals in school.

school meal at Ethiopian ECCE

Meal programs like this one in an Ethiopian Early Childhood Care & Education Centre ensure that children receive the essential nutrition they need.

For those living in poverty, school meals can help the whole family. They stretch food budgets so that pre-school children and parents all get more food. Plus, they are often complemented by parental supports including nutrition training, livelihoods development, and other opportunities to increase household income.

A World Bank/World Food Programme study found that the value of meals in school is equivalent to about 10% of a household’s income, which – for families with several children – can be substantial. (1)

Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods

Well-designed school nutrition programs ensure that children eat a diverse, balanced diet with appropriate micro- and macronutrients. (2) Fresh fruits and vegetables – which may be expensive, scarce or uncommon in local diets –  improve the quality of children’s diets and are important for short- and long-term disease prevention. Studies show that the more fruits and vegetables children eat as part of their daily routine, the less likely they are to consume food that is less healthy, e.g. high in added sugar and saturated or trans fats with low nutritional value. (3)

School nutrition programs that incorporate nutrition and health education in the school curriculum and that involve students in their design and delivery are even stronger. Students serve as “good food ambassadors” and encourage their peers to practice healthy food habits.

School food ambassador shows off home-grown carrots

This student “good food ambassador” shows off the fruits (and veggies) of his labour. (Neyaashiinigmiing, Canada)

School food improves learning outcomes

School meals offer an incentive for children to attend and remain in school. A major study revealed that children who receive a school meal attend school four to seven days more than children who do not. (4)

And not only does the prospect of receiving food at school encourage children to attend, but kids with full tummies learn better. They are better able to concentrate, have more energy, their memory and problem-solving skills are better and they exhibit less disruptive behaviour.

Boys hand plates to each other while serving school meals

Two boys form a tag team to serve lunch at a school in Uganda.

In three CFTC-supported communities (O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation in Manitoba, and Nain and Hopedale in Labrador) teachers and school administrators all reported similar findings: daily access to nutritious food reduced behavioural incidents, increased energy and attention, and improved attendance leading to greater academic success.

In Canada, the U.S. and around the world, the conclusions are clear: students achieve better academic outcomes overall when they receive nutritious food in school. Among the positive impacts are: lower drop-out, higher graduation rates, fewer students repeating grades, higher scores on standardized tests, and many more. (5)

School food programs support gender equality

Receiving a meal in school particularly benefits girls. In many communities worldwide, girls’ education is undervalued and girls are therefore vulnerable to dropping out or being taken out of school, often to be sent away to work or subjected to early marriage. Not only do early marriage and early childbearing present dangers to girls in and of themselves, but lower educational attainment affects women’s longer-term earning capacity miring them and their children in an inter-generational cycle of poverty.

Feeding and keeping girls in school plus involving their families in agricultural production for school meals is a virtuous circle, relieving the financial pressure that often leads to taking girls out of school in the first place.

Serving lunch in Ghana. School food programs can keep girls in school.

In northern Ghana, school food programs stave off hunger and both attract and keep children in school.

School food programs can boost local, regional and national economies

School nutrition programming that is linked to broader community food initiatives can stimulate local jobs and agricultural endeavours. One of the best practices in delivering school nutrition programs is to ensure that food is purchased – and, even better, grown – locally. Procuring food locally creates stable markets that benefit growers and sellers, typically the parents and caregivers of school children, so there is a cycle of increased food and income for better all-round (and all-year-round) nutrition.

School nutrition programs that are integrated with local food systems are community capacity and spirit-builders. School gardens, for example, provide a local supply of fruits and vegetables and also offer community members, parents, teachers, and school children the opportunity to build skills around food production and preparation, gain important information about nutrition and healthy eating, and celebrate community food traditions.

school gardens often provide food for the whole school

School gardens around the world – like this one in Bolivia – supply schools with fruits and vegetables.

Ultimately, as the World Food Programme notes, school food programs are an essential, effective way to build a nation’s human capital. That’s one of the reasons why countries implement national school food strategies.

National governments, civil society organizations and NGOs all agree that providing reliable school meals can change the future of the whole country. A recent World Bank report states that, “When we improve the health and nutrition of schoolchildren, we transform the rest of their lives. Children who are well-nourished learn more, and as adults they earn more and are more productive. That transformation carries through to the next generation with the improved health of their own children, creating a long-term cycle of economic growth and progress.” (6)

A recipe for success

The main ingredient of school nutrition programs is the provision of breakfast, lunch (or both) and often healthy snacks during the day. These should be consistent, nutritious, tasty and culturally appropriate.

For school nutrition programs to achieve improved food security and even sustainability, however, several other ingredients are necessary:

  • Hands-on learning about healthy eating, where food comes from, and food production and preparation to build lifelong good eating practices
  • Food and nutrition education for teachers, other school staff (e.g., school cooks), parents and caregivers, which helps integrate knowledge of healthy child development and reinforces the importance of dietary diversity
  • Adequate food preparation and hygiene/sanitation facilities like well-equipped kitchens, safe water sources, hygiene instruction, and other health and education facilities
  • Community champions who can engage and mobilize parents and other community members, and spearhead important advocacy for food security funding, policy, infrastructure and resources
  • Links to other sustainable food security initiatives such as school and community gardens, local food movements and local agriculture
How you can help

Your donations for school meals are essential to ensure regular access to healthy food for students around the world. But there are other ways to help, too:

  • Get involved. Parental involvement in school can ensure daily meal programs remain funded and resourced appropriately.
  • Advocate for a national school food program in Canada. Canada remains one of the few industrialized countries without a national program. While the last federal budget pledged a Canadian school food program, it still requires funding. Talk to your local, provincial and federal representatives and let them know you care about this issue.
  • Donate to food security and related programs that ensure food is available for children year-round. Student food programs run only during the school year, and are only one part of a total food security solution. Consider donating to support other initiatives that help provide food for children year round.

Together, we can make a difference one meal, one student, one community at a time … and create a world where children thrive.


  1. Donald Bundy, Carmen Burbano, Margaret Grosh, Aulo Gelli, Matthew Jukes and Lesley Drake (2009). Rethinking School Feeding Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector. World Bank Group and World Food Programme.
  2. Lamis Jomaa, Elaine Mcdonnel and Claudia Probart (2011). School feeding programs in developing countries: Impacts on children’s health and educational outcomes. Nutrition Reviews.
  3. Various sources cited by Food Secure Canada and the Coalition for Healthy School Food (2018). For a Universal Healthy School Food Program.
  4. E.A. Kristjansson, A. Gelli, V. Welch, T.Greenhalgh, S.Liberato, D.Francis, F.Espejo (2016). Costs, and cost-outcome of school feeding programmes and feeding programmes for young children. Evidence and recommendations. International Journal of Educational Development.
  5. Birte Snilstveit, Jennifer Stevenson, Daniel Phillips, Martina Vojtkova, Emma Gallagher, Tanja Schmidt, Hannah Jobse, Maisie Geelen, Maria Grazia Pastorello, John Eyers (2015). Interventions for Improving Learning Outcomes and Access to Education in Low- and Middle Income Countries: A Systematic Review. Systematic Review 24, International Initiative for Impact Evaluation.
  6. Donald Bundy, Nilanthi de Silva, Susan Horton, Dean Jamison and George Patton (2018). Re-Imagining School Feeding: A High-Return Investment in Human Capital and Local Economies. World Bank.