Pairing learning with food is a winning recipe

Many schoolchildren are in need of nutritional support, in addition to the National School Nutrition Programme lunch, to support their learning. (John McCann/M&G)

Many schoolchildren are in need of nutritional support, in addition to the National School Nutrition Programme lunch, to support their learning. (John McCann/M&G)

Learning and schooling are not the same thing. What does it mean for children to learn? What skills and knowledge do we hope children will have by the time they are young adults?

Literacy is predictive of other core skills, yet 29% of grade four learners in South Africa are functionally illiterate in their home language. Despite some gains, South Africa’s schooling system is still far from achieving the levels of learning needed for children to become adults who thrive.

There has been a global focus on early childhood development (ECD) in setting children up to develop their potential in life — and rightly so. In South Africa, ECD is seen as pivotal to pro-poor development and planning for the sake not only of children, but for a stronger economy and a safer and more inclusive society.

An “essential package” of ECD services includes child stimulation, along with food and nutritional support for both children and nursing mothers. Much of the focus is on improving out-of-home care for young children in order to facilitate development and school readiness.

Yet of the six-million children in South Africa under four years, only about 34% have access to some form of out-of-home care. And this percentage drops to 20% among the poorest 40% of households.

The need to strengthen ECD services in South Africa is beyond debate. A recent World Bank report, however, casts a look beyond the first 1 000 days of a child’s life and finds that although investments in ECD are essential, alone they are insufficient.

A proper education takes two decades — 8 000 days— but this longer view has been neglected. The World Bank report, Re-Imagining School Feeding, notes: “If current education funding trends hold, by 2030, 800-million children — half a generation — will lack the basic secondary skills necessary to thrive in an unknowable future.”

South Africa is classified as an upper middle-income country, but national averages mask enormous inequalities. Well over 50% of South Africans live below the upper poverty line. An education system that is not yielding learning significantly widens existing chasms in social and economic health between the rich and the poor.

Health and education are two sides of the same coin, as the World Bank report points out. It is increasingly apparent that school feeding programmes produce social and economic benefits across sectors, and punch above their weight in investment.

If well implemented, they can get children into school, help keep them in school, and enable them to learn while they are there. They can help address multiple dimensions of poor nutrition — undernutrition, obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies. They can start to balance gender inequalities and they can also function as a social safety net — easing household income by as much as 10-15%. This is an enormous saving for those living on the bread line.

These findings are not all new, but the potential returns on joining health to education interventions are only now being fully understood. Returns are disproportionately high-yielding and progressive in their economic and social effects — especially in vulnerable areas.

Only a homegrown system specific to our context will work. The good news is that strides are being made on the health side of the coin with nutrition provision through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), which currently reaches over nine-million learners in primary and secondary schools across the country.

Intensified co-investment is, however, still required from both public and non-state sectors to truly achieve learning. For example, many primary and secondary schoolchildren are also in need of nutrition support in addition to the NSNP lunch to support their learning.

Children from food-insecure households arriving at school on an empty stomach cannot learn — and lunch is a long way off. Similarly, teenagers attending community-led schools, after-school programmes and holiday clubs find life-changing opportunities for skills development and learning, but these settings do not qualify for government nutrition support.

The Lunchbox Fund is one of a number of non-government organisations co-investing in these gaps. Our homegrown health-plus-education system is improving, but gains must be accelerated if we are to reach the 13-million children below the poverty line with better opportunities to become adults able to work, learn, and adapt in a complex, insecure and changing South Africa.

Dr Alison Misselhorn is director of research and strategy at the Lunchbox Fund

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