Kenya: School Meals Graduates Pass Down Rewards

Published on 18 May 2010

A young boy from the slums of Nairobi hits the books in a schoolhouse where he also eats his most important meal of the day. WFP is providing school meals to over 1.2 million children across Kenya. Copyright: WFP/Rein Skullerud

WFP has been providing school meals to children in Kenya for over 20 years. Today, a new generation of graduates is turning the rewards of those meals into stronger communities. Anthropologist Timothy J. Finan, author of a new report on school feeding in Kenya, tells us how.

NAIROBI – “It’s amazing to watch how something as simple as giving a child some food can unlock their potential”.

Dr. Finan should know. A professor at the University of Arizona, he’s studied school feeding programmes from Bangladesh to Brazil and seen countless children come alive with the help of a nutritious meal.

Recently, his research took him to Kenya to study the impact one of WFP’s longest running school meals programmes is having on local communities. His findings uncovered a pattern of successful graduates working to lift their families out of poverty and inspiring the next generation to follow in their footsteps.

Finan calls it the “Reverse Flow Effect”.

Reverse Flow Effect

“This is the point at which school feeding, together with other factors, begins to break the cycle of hunger and poverty,” he explains. “Healthy, educated young people start to get ahead and we see a flow of resources back to their family and community.”

Dr. Timothy J. Finan (centre) is a professor of Applied Anthropology at the University of Arizona. An aid and development specialist, he's worked extensively in Chad, Brazil and recently Bangladesh.

Achieving the Reverse Flow Effect in one household can also be helpful in convincing others to follow their example and make education a priority. “When children reach a certain age, their parents start feeling pressure to take them out of school so they can generate income or help around the house,” Finan said.

“But when families perceive that education will lead to future returns, they’re more likely to accept the cost of keeping their child in school.”

Steps forward

Commissioned by WFP’s Office of Evaluation, Finan and his team surveyed the families of 1,352 children in 68 different schools across the country, in both rural Kenya and the city slums of Nairobi. They found that enrolment rates in schools with meals were an average 28% higher than at those without, confirming the power of food as a magnet to classrooms. School meals were also found to keep kids coming back, with attendance rates an average of 5% higher for boys and as much as 10% higher for girls.

In addition, the study showed that school lunches encouraged parents to leave their children at school for the entire day, freeing up time that nearly a third of families used to earn income.

Overall, children fed at school were more likely to continue studying after grade 8 by 4% among girls and 12% among boys. While girls with school meals finished elementary school at a rate 11% higher than those without, the study registered stubbornly high drop-out rates among female teens in both groups.

Finan concluded that overcoming the cultural barriers facing girls in school would require a wide range of food and educational initiatives that target the underlying causes at the root of poverty and hunger in Kenya.

Key Facts
  • Some 66 million children around the world go to school on an empty stomach. One in three of them live in Africa.
  • An estimated 75 million children don't go to school at all, so that they can work or help around the house.
  • WFP provides school meals to around 22 million children in 70 different countries. Half of those children are girls.
  • A hearty school lunch of porridge or rice and beans costs USD $0.25. Just $50 can provide a child with school meals for an entire year. 

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about the author

Justin Smith

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Justin Smith worked as a journalist before joining WFP in 2010. He tweets at @justin_eugene