Malawi Needs a Universalized School Meals Program

As reflected in the Malawi National Resilience Master Plan 2016, it is an open secret that the majority of Malawi’s population is dependent on rain-fed, smallholder agriculture that is highly vulnerable to economic and climatic shocks. These cyclical stresses result in perpetual food insecurity as affected households often resort to reducing the number of meals eaten per day. In turn, reduced meal frequency affects school attendance, as most learners shun making the often long journey to school on an empty stomach. A 2009 Malawi Government Ministry of Education report acknowledged that food insecurity problems contributed to absenteeism, drop out, poor learning capacity, and educational gender gaps in the country.

The School Feeding Program Landscape in Malawi

In light of the above, under the current Malawi National Social Support Program 2, the government of Malawi is investing in human capital and survival through the promotion of a comprehensive school meals program. In itself, the program is not new to Malawi, with the current coverage estimated at 30% as per the Malawi National Nutrition Policy 2018— up from 24% in 2014, as stipulated in the Malawi School feeding Report 2014.

Children wait for porridge at school. Source: CorpsAfrica

Through its development partners including World Food Program (WFP), United Nations Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and Mary’s Meals, the government of Malawi has been implementing an intermittent school meals program in selected schools across several districts since the 1990’s. Most school meal initiatives in Malawi offer daily porridge for all learners and take-home rations for vulnerable students. More sustainable modalities include self-sustainable school meals programs where schools are assisted with income generating opportunities such as solar irrigation to produce their own food or programs where schools are empowered to purchase food locally.

Why are school meal programs important?

School meal programs provide an opportunity for national governments to invest in the long term development of both children and communities. Aside from acting as a catalyst for children to attend school, they open up a range of other possibilities. Disadvantaged children, the poor, the marginalized, and especially girls often suffer the most from ill health and malnutrition. Therefore these groups can greatly benefit from school feeding programs.

In a recent study, as reported in the World Food Program (WFP) School Meals Report 2018, it is estimated that for every one dollar spent on school meals in Malawi, at least six dollars are returned in better health and productivity when children reach adulthood. According to the same report, a 15 percent increase in enrollment was recorded across 92 schools, and 30,000 farmers were linked to existing market opportunities as well as mobilized into cooperatives.

School meals can also help create an enabling environment for the design and delivery of other key public health service delivery programs, such as school-based deworming. Schools that provide meals could also offer employment for kitchen helpers, for example, who can be paid in kind or through take-home rations.

What could a nationalized school meals program look like?

School feeding, like most other social protection interventions in Malawi, is not entirely implemented centrally by the government, but rather consists of a patchwork of programs implemented by NGOs and development partners. This fragmented approach leads to a lack of harmonization in the implementation and delivery mechanisms, which could potentially reduce efficiency and effectiveness. As shown in the figure below, currently school meal programs are one of the social protection initiatives that receive relatively low funding and priority.

School meals share of the National Social Protection Budget. Source: Malawi National Social Support Program Strategy 2

A 2014 Malawi School Feeding Report by the International Labor Organisation (ILO) strongly recommended that school meals should be extended beyond the currently targeted districts and schools, especially in Malawi’s context of lean seasons and high drop-out rates.

A Call to Action

As discussed above, there is overwhelming evidence around the impact and importance of school meal programs in Malawi with regards to nutrition, social protection, better education results, and local agriculture development. Despite the obvious benefits of the program, there is little indication of any intention to make the program a routine service in the education system in Malawi.

Nationalization of the program would not only help all school children to exercise their rights to nutrition, health, and education but would also contribute directly to at least nine Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and four in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III. The good news is we now know that such programs can be sustainable given the documented self-sustenance of some school feeding projects and approaches.

Building on lessons from other countries such as Nigeria which has launched a Home Grown Schools Feeding Strategic Plan, what Malawi needs to do next is to mobilize current efforts into a costed national strategic plan that would set out the key objectives and provide direction to all stakeholders for the systematic implementation of a universal school meals program.

In the future, the program should look into the possibility of providing school lunches aside from just porridge. In such a process, Malawi could also leverage resources such as the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) that connects a global network of practitioners to develop and support locally-sourced school meal programs. A universalized schools meals program can offer more hope for a better Malawi — a country in which hunger can no longer be a barrier to a child’s education.

Mzondi Ziba was a 2015–2016 fellow in Malawi.

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