How effective are food-for-education programs?

Education and child health are important tools of poverty reduction and economic development. With the recent focus on universal primary education as a Millennium Development Goal, many developing countries have made dramatic improvements in primary school nrollment rates, but primary school attendance and secondary school participation remain low. One reason is that schoolage children in poor households are often needed to work on the farm or to care for younger siblings so that parents can work. Another reason is that poor health nd short term hunger cause children to miss school. Children who are hungry during school also learn less effectively.

Food-for-education (FFE) programs, which include meals served to children in school, as well as take-home rations conditional on a child’s school attendance, are a popular means of improving school participation while fostering learning and supplementing the inadequate diets of school-age children. When the meals provided are well timed, they can reduce short-term hunger and help children concentrate and learn. The food is often fortified, which helps address nutritional deficiencies and may improve health and cognitive functioning.

FFE programs raise the benefits of school participation, increasing enrollment and attendance. This may improve learning and educational achievement, which may be bolstered by improved nutrition and cognitive function. FFE programs may improve nutrition and health by directly increasing household food availability, but the net effect on nutrition could be negative if the family loses income because the child is spending more time in school and less time in productive activities. If an FFE program is not accompanied by increased school capacity, classrooms may be crowded, negatively affecting learning. Therefore, negative effects on both education and nutrition are possible. However, the evidence suggests that the effects on education are positive for most children. One possible exception is that children who were already attending school may suffer negative peer effects—the impact of lower ability children joining school. The impact on nutrition also appears to be positive, depending on the quantity and quality of food provided, but gains may be small relative to nutrition interventions in the first two years of life.

Despite these potential benefits, FFE programs have come under attack recently by some donors and policymakers, who contend that these programs are an expensive method for producing the stated education and nutrition objectives and that other more cost-effective mechanisms exist. The empirical evidence on these claims is mixed and can be misleading. One reason is that most evaluations of FFE programs fail to account for both the education and nutrition impacts and for the potential joint benefits of feeding hungry children during school. As a result, aggregate impacts can appear modest. Also, many impact evaluations fail to consider program costs. Indeed, few comprehensive and rigorous studies of the cost-effectiveness of FFE programs exist.

Another common critique is that FFE programs often fail in implementation because of unreliable food availability or disorganized meals that disrupt learning. There are examples to support these claims, but the solution is usually one of implementation rather than program design. The remainder of this brief describes the scope and type of FFE programs in operation today, providing a critical assessment of the evidence on their impact and cost-effectiveness, concluding with policy implications and a call for more careful evidence.

Adelman, Sarah W.
Gilligan, Daniel O.
Lehrer, Kim
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Series number: 
Special Edition
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