By: Talking Nutrition Editors
In January 2020, following a decade of sustained growth, the number of children receiving meals at school had reached an all-time high of 388 million worldwide.3 Just three months later, much of that hard-won progress had been lost. As the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold around the world, 199 countries were forced to close their schools, leaving 370 million children without their one reliable meal of the day.4
The impact of the global health crisis on children’s development and wellbeing has been significant, restricting access to education, healthcare, social interaction, as well as the nutritious foods they need to grow, learn and develop a robust immune system. For decades, school feeding programs have provided an effective, efficient and safe method for addressing nutrient gaps on a large scale, helping make sure children receive both the calories and micronutrients required to fight infections and grow up healthily. Though the task of rebuilding the lost progress is large, the spotlight placed on school feeding programs during the pandemic and the central role they play in safeguarding children’s health has galvanized action like never before – with governments, NGOs, donors and individuals committed to investing in childhood nutrition as a vital step in supporting future generations.
Hunger is an endemic issue for millions of school children worldwide, many of whom don’t have access to either the quantity or quality of food they need for optimal physical and cognitive health.5 In concrete terms, UNICEF estimates 340 million children are not getting the vitamins and minerals they need to grow up healthily.6 Not only is the scale of this issue staggering – this number is equivalent to 1 in 2 of the global children’s population – but, because the effects of malnutrition are often subtle, by the time the condition is recognized it can be too late to take action.7 Hidden hunger can seriously affect a child’s educational performance, particularly their ability to concentrate, therefore negatively impacting the opportunities available to these individuals as adults.
At their most basic level, school feeding programs can ensure children receive at least one meal a day, giving them both the energy to learn and the micronutrients they need to nourish their developing immune systems. The considerable benefits school feeding programs bring to children’s physical health can be further bolstered through the inclusion of fortified foods – such as rice, cereal blends, juice, milk, baked goods or yogurt – in the program. Staple food fortification is the process of adding essential vitamins and minerals that address specific nutrient gaps or health needs to foodstuffs. This can drastically improve the nutritional credentials of the products that communities often rely on for most of their calorific intake – without affecting flavor, texture or cooking requirements.
An example of a fortification project in action can be found in Deogarh, India. In partnership with DSM and the World Food Programme, the Odisha Government supplies fortified rice under public distribution system to address nutritional deficiencies amongst school children.8
Backed by a well-established body of preclinical and clinical data, nutritional scientists have linked the development of a healthy immune response to an adequate intake of certain micronutrients, in particular vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, folate, omega-3 polyunsaturated acids (PUFA), and minerals like zinc, selenium, copper and iron.9 Without enough of these nutrients, the body is less able to defend itself against pathogens or develop antibodies that can help protect against future infection.10
The prevalence of diseases caused or exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies was already high prior to the pandemic, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. But as travel restrictions, supply chain challenges and lockdowns have further reduced access to healthy, nutritious diets for vulnerable nations, the problem has deepened exponentially.11 In the short term, these deficiencies may increase the immediate threat posed by infectious diseases, while also having long-lasting effects on educational attainment, chronic disease risk, and economic prospects for both individuals and nations.12
By providing essential nutrients, school feeding programs can support children in building robust barriers against infection, helping them stay healthy, happy and able to learn.13 Beyond the core benefits of reduced rates of childhood illness and mortality, the immune-supporting potential of such programs leads to lower healthcare costs, improved school performance, and ultimately, accelerated economic development and prosperity. The World Bank and the Copenhagen Consensus have ranked food fortification as one of the best investments in development in terms of cost effectiveness, with every $1 invested in fortification estimated to generate $27 in economic return from prevented treatment costs, improved earnings and enhanced work productivity.14
In the poorest regions around the world, the promise of a meal is the main reason why many children attend school at all.15 Disease is of course another major cause of educational disruption, and with immune systems diminished due to poor nutrition, many vulnerable children may miss out on the benefits of schooling because of excessive, illness-based absences.16 In the midst of these challenges, school feeding programs can help to incentivize families to send their children back into education following the pandemic, and help support more consistent attendance, with fewer days off as a result of largely preventable conditions.
Within the classroom itself, the effects of hidden hunger – particularly iron deficiency – can seriously impair a child’s alertness and capacity for learning.17 Properly nourished children are better able to concentrate and perform well in class, thereby setting them up for brighter future prospects. Taking a longer view, educating children about the importance of healthy eating during their formative school years can help establish positive eating habits that they will carry for the rest of their lives.18 School feeding programs can therefore empower young people to make healthier food choices as they grow into adults and, in time, pass this knowledge onto the next generation.
In addition to fortified food, micronutrient powders (MNPs) offer another effective way to improve nutrition in children. These vitamin and mineral powders are usually supplied in easy-to-use, single sachets that can be added to school meals for multiple servings prepared in-school. This way, organizations can ensure kids always receive the nutrients they need to grow up healthy and fight off the infections that can stop them attending school.
Keeping the world’s growing population healthy
The meteoric rise in school meal provision over the past decade proves that progress is possible. Together, the public and private sectors can roll out nutrition interventions to support immune and overall health in children – helping them achieve their full potential. With the right nutrition solutions and sufficient investment from governments and humanitarian bodies, the world can start to overcome the setbacks of the past 18 months and make this the decade of action for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger.
At DSM, we provide the high-quality science-backed ingredients, customized solutions and expert services that are needed to plan and implement truly impactful school feeding programs. From staple food fortification to micronutrient powder solutions and international advocacy, DSM is your purpose-led, end-to-end partner in the fight against childhood malnutrition and immune deficiency. Together, we can help keep the world’s growing population healthy.
To discover how a partnership with DSM can help unlock accessible and affordable nutritional solutions to support immune health and much more, visit our Nutrition Improvement immunity content hub.
30 July 2021
5 min read