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Rethinking School Feeding: Social Safety Nets, Child Development, and the Education Sector

“In the face of global crises, we must now focus on how school feeding programs can be designed and implemented in a cost-effective and sustainable way to benefit and protect those most in need of help today and in the future.”

World Bank Group President, Robert B. Zoellick
WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran

Press Release 

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Key Points and Statistics

- More than 60 million children go to school hungry every day – about 40% of them are in Africa.

- School feeding is an effective social safety net and helps boost school attendance, cognition and educational achievement.

- Targeted school feeding reaches the most vulnerable children, especially girls, helping to reduce their hunger and keep them in school.

- The World Bank and World Food Programme have joined in partnership to undertake a study of how to best implement school feeding programs.

- In 2008, the UN World Food Programme assisted some 22 million children, with school feeding in 70 countries.

- The World Bank Group recently launched a Global Food Crisis Response Facility that mobilized $1.2 billion to help countries respond to the food and fuel crises, including by scaling-up school feeding programs.


About this Book

This book is written jointly by the World Bank Group and the World Food Programme, building on the comparative advantage of both organizations. The overall objective is to provide guidance on how to develop and implement effective school feeding programs, in the context of both a productive safety net as part of the response to the social shocks of the current global crises, and a fiscally sustainable investment in human capital as part of long-term global efforts to achieve Education for All (EFA) and provide social protection for the poor.

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Chapter 1: Context and Rationale

Why does school feeding make sense from both an education and social protection perspective? How do school feeding programs work best across socio-economic contexts, and to what end goal? The origins of this report developed to discuss how school feeding programs can respond to the urgent global food crisis. However, the report has since evolved to address the fiscal sustainability of productive safety nets in response to the long-term objectives of countries, the response to the social shocks of the current global crises, and a fiscally sustainable investment in human capital as part of long-term global efforts to achieve Education for All (EFA) and provide social protection for the poor. The review is targeted at the education and social protection sectors, but may also be relevant to the health sector in countries where school health and school feeding are coordinated by the health sector.

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Chapter 2: What is School Feeding?

School feeding is by no means a new concept, and has experienced a good deal of both success and progress as far as program development and growth. What can we say about the degree to which school feeding programs have become an established norm in both low and high-income countries around the world? The prevalence of these efforts is expansive. Every country for which we have data is in some way and at some scale seeking to provide food to its schoolchildren. Comprehensive school feeding is near universal in those high and middle-income countries that can afford the programs and for which we have data. Alarmingly though, countries with the greatest need are those where the school feeding programs are currently least adequate. The near universality of school feeding, and the inadequacy of programs where the need is greatest, suggest an important opportunity for development partners to assist governments to roll out safety nets in response to the current global crises. Safety nets also sow the seeds for longer-term investment in human capital and social protection.

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Chapter 3: Why Implement School Feeding?

School feeding programs are attractive in that they are able to address more than one development goal at the same time, showing substantial benefits for both the education and social protection of children from impoverished families. School feeding can impact educational attainment by increasing enrollment, attendance, cognition, and educational achievement, although the scale of benefit and the evidence of effect vary by program type. The social safety net roles of school feeding programs include an immediate response to social shocks as well as social protection over the longer term. Well-designed school feeding programs that include micronutrient fortification and deworming can provide additional nutritional benefits and should be designed to complement nutrition programs for younger children, which remain a clear priority for targeting malnutrition overall. Given the value to education and social protection, there is a need for these sectors to be more systematically engaged in the development of school feeding programs, including research, design, and policy dialogue.

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Chapter 4: Planning for Sustainability

School feeding programs are most successful when emphasized as part of an overall plan to improve education and social safety nets. In low-income countries, programs exhibit large variation in cost, with related opportunities for cost containment. As countries grow economically from low to middle-income status, the cost of school feeding declines substantially relative to the cost of education. This dynamic indicates the need for a strong focus on supporting programs in countries before they make that transformation. The main preconditions in order for countries to successfully make the transition to sustainable national programs entail mainstreaming school feeding in national policies and plans, especially education sector plans; national financing; and national implementation capacity. It is critical that long-term sustainability is designed into programs from their inception, and that programs are continuously revisited as they evolve. Countries also benefit from having a clear understanding of the duration of donor assistance, a systematic strategy to strengthen institutional capacity, and a concrete plan for transition to national ownership with timeframes and milestones of the process. Further benefits might accrue if support for school feeding is better aligned with the processes to harmonize development cooperation in the education sector, notably the Education for All-Fast Track Initiative.

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Chapter 5: Trade-offs in Program Design: Targeting, Feeding, Modalities, and Costs

A number of types of school feeding programs have been designed and shown to be successful. These various types of food delivery, or modalities, can include school lunches, take-home rations, or even fortified snacks. There are real differences in costs and benefits among the available modalities, and there are significant differences in the appropriateness of the different modalities to local capacity and contexts. Given a finite budget, targeting is essential to ensure that programs provide the most benefit to the intended beneficiaries, as well as maximize benefits and contain costs. There are significant and avoidable opportunity costs of using teachers to prepare food, and significant and avoidable environmental concerns that arise from school feeding operations, especially relating to cooking fuel and packaging. The participation of children and communities is a positive determinant factor in the sustainability of a program, but careful program design is required to avoid exploitation or negative implications for education. Designing effective programs requires understanding and careful consideration of trade-offs among targeting approaches, feeding modalities, and costs. To this end, there is a need for better data on the cost-effectiveness of the available approaches and modalities.

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Chapter 6: Institutional and Procurement Arrangements

There are many factors to consider in designing an effective school feeding program, including, importantly, how they will be run and how they will be supplied. Institutional arrangements and procurement choices need to respond to the specific country context, especially in relation to policy, resources, and capacity. The management of school feeding programs has become increasingly decentralized, mirroring the trend in the education sector toward school-based management. Case studies of programs that have transitioned to sustainable national ownership show that programs benefit from having a designated national institution, usually the education sector, and appropriate capacity for implementation at subnational levels. Whereas national ownership appears to be a critical factor in transitioning to sustainability, many different approaches to implementation—including public sector, private sector, and public-private partnerships—appear to be effective. Local food procurement is being actively evaluated by countries as a means to achieve sustainable school feeding programs and at the same time stimulate the local agricultural economy by using the purchasing power of the program. The primary challenge is how to build sustainability into these programs from the outset.

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Chapter 7: How to Design and Update School Feeding Programs

A number of useful tools have been developed to improve the design and maintenance of school feeding programs. These tools go step by step through the process of developing and ensuring effective programs that are geared for long-term sustainability. Different tools are often appropriate for varied contexts and intended outcomes. The following checklists and tools are presented by the report’s authors:

  • Checklist to Design and Implement New School Feeding Programs
  • Checklist to Update Existing School Feeding Programs
  • A Designer’s Toolkit

Additional resources also provide a wider framework for development and support.

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Chapter 8: Key Findings and Research Agenda

A number of key areas for future research would contribute to the further advancement of knowledge and practice on school feeding. Policymakers would benefit from a database on school feeding programs that describes the coverage and function of programs globally. This information would be complemented by further assessment of the relative merits of school feeding versus other social safety net instruments. Impact studies are also needed to assess the benefits to education and potential nutritional contribution of different designs of school feeding programs. Comparisons of different school feeding modalities and the determinants of cost variation among countries would aid policymakers in best allocating resources. Cost breakdowns would also help weigh the relative benefits of different modalities of school feeding with the comparative cost-effectiveness. Case studies of countries that have successfully transitioned to sustainable programs present useful models. Further research is needed on the capacity of local procurement to provide additional economic and social benefits, and to contribute to sustainability. Continued progress would also be advanced by the development of new, improved technical guidance and knowledge management tools to support the design of school feeding programs.

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Appendix 1. School Feeding in El Salvador: Preliminary Findings of a Case Study of the Transition

Appendix 2. Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping

Appendix 3. Setting Up School Feeding Programs

Appendix 4. Revisiting School Feeding Programs


Last updated: 2009-11-23

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