The Irrefutable Link Between Food and Education
by Damarice Omundo
“Nutrition is a vital component of human life and brain development throughout our lifespan.”
The value of nutrition starts even before conception, since everything a mother consumes will affect the health of her unborn child. Babies who are malnourished in utero have a higher risk of dying in infancy or being born with cognitive or physical impairments.
The first 1000 days of a child’s life (from conception to the age of two) are the most important, since 80% of a baby’s brain growth happens in the first two years.
According to Unicef, the right nutrition and care during this window influences not only whether the child will survive, but their ability to grow, learn and rise out of poverty.
“As such, it contributes to society’s long-term health, stability and prosperity,” the report says.
A balanced diet is crucial for physical growth, cognitive development, productivity and endurance.
Children aged 3-9 years old require balanced diets for continued growth and development. Adolescents aged 10-19 years old are in their second window of opportunity for growth and development and therefore require even more carbohydrates (high energy), proteins and micronutrients.
Adolescence is also a time of transition when habits are formed that persist into adult life. Good habits, such as exercise and healthy eating, are likely to bring many future benefits, including improved performance in school and at work.
If children do not get sufficient food, particularly the required daily nutrient intake, they will not reach their full potential as many will be stunted or wasted or worse.
Effects of undernutrition
Undernutrition in childhood and adolescence results in constant physiologic and psychologic stress, increasing the production of stress hormones that weaken the body and decreasing the production of hormones that regulate growth.
Undernutrition weakens the immune system and keeps sick children out of school.
Undernutrition can lead to stunted mental and physical growth. Children who are stunted have a low ability to learn at school and show poor academic performance. Unicef has found that children who are stunted frequently have lower productivity, and earn up to 20% less than average wages as adults. Stunting can reduce a country’s GDP by as much as 3%.
Many adults who can’t find employment can be directly linked to a poor, vulnerable childhood with insufficient diet, social support and education.
Hunger impairs attention and the ability of children to concentrate on lessons.
Malnutrition, therefore, is a major public health issue that impacts negatively on society as a whole.
At JAM we have seen and understand the irrefutable link between nutrition and education.
We know that with the right nutrition, children have a better chance of realising their full potential and contributing meaningfully to society and the economy.
We know that getting vital vitamins and minerals can quite literally turn a child’s life around.
We also know that a bowl of food keeps children coming to school.
This is a common thread that runs throughout JAM’s history of school feeding and the countries in which we work.
In Angola, we heard about how a young Cristóvão, not too keen on lessons, had been encouraged to attend school because of the JAM porridge. He ended up loving school and is a qualified electrician today who makes sure his children have grown up knowing the value of education.
In Sierra Leone, Mohammed was lured back into the classroom from playing truant by a simple hot meal, in South Africa three-year-old Vincent’s improved health and energy after receiving our highly nutritious porridge encouraged other parents to send their children to the same early childhood development centre.
Based on analysis by the United Nations World Food Programme, with whom we partner, when school feeding is combined with other support interventions such as health, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, agriculture, economic empowerment and quality training for implementers, it contributes to child development, community ownership and better human capital.
This is why JAM focuses on all these areas and more, including home-grown school feeding whereby local smallholder farmers are given agricultural training and the opportunity to provide food to schools. Schoolchildren themselves are also being taught to nurture food gardens.
If implemented properly, national school feeding programmes could promote education as well as local and sustainable food production all at the same time.
The greatest gift you can give a child is an education. Nelson Mandela said it was the most powerful weapon you could use to change the world. We say, the simplest way to get started is by feeding a child! A red bowl of JAM food keeps tummies full and children in school.
Damarice Omundo is the Country Director for JAM in Sierra Leone