Long-term school meals improve children’s learning abilities, Berlin study finds
14 Feb 2019 --- Children who ate lunch for a period of three to five years scored 18 percent higher in reading test scores and 9 percent higher in math test scores than those with less than a year of school lunches. This is according to a European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) Berlin study. The findings enforce the significance of long-term nutrition for school children, with the researchers noting that the effects of nutrition on cognition are cumulative. The researchers highlight the importance of free school meals and call for governments to take notice.
The authors of the study, Professor Rajshri Jayaraman from ESMT Berlin and Professor Tanika Chakraborty from the Indian Institute of Technology, examined the impact of India’s school lunch meals, the world’s largest free school lunch program, feeding over 120 million children every day.
“Most studies have found little or no effect of school feeding programs on the learning outcomes of children. The catch is that previous studies only examined the impacts of school feeding for a maximum of two years, as well as for a few months or even weeks,” Jayaraman tells NutritionInsight.
“The effect of nutrition appears to be cumulative and seen over time,” says Jayaraman. “We basically replicate this finding in our study: there is little or no effect of midday meals after two years of program exposure. What is surprising about our study is that we do find a positive effect in the long run. Anyone familiar with how hard it is to improve school performance will tell you that these effects are pretty massive.”
According to the researchers, this is the longest, large scale study into the effect of midday meals on primary school-aged children’s learning. The researchers exploited data from nearly 600 rural districts in India, covering over 200,000 households. The findings verify the importance of free school meal programs for children, effective around the world.
According to the World Food Program, 368 million children globally – one in five – received a school meal in 2013 at a cost of US$75 billion.
Click to Enlarge“Basic education and nutrition are – or should be – basic rights, which means that governments are the ones who should be sitting up and paying attention to research,” Jayaraman notes.
The authors say that more research is “absolutely” warranted as there are a lot of “open questions.”
“One is why one only sees improvements in learning achievement only after prolonged exposure. One possible answer, which nutritional biologists point to, is that the effects of nutrition on cognition are cumulative, which means that you need to basically stock up on nutrition, perhaps over years, in order to for nutritional improvements to translate effectively to improved learning,” Jayaraman says.
Another possibility, she says, is that it takes time and adjustment for large policy changes to actually translate into impact. “For example, school feeding programs need infrastructural and logistical support systems – you need to procure the food, hire cooks, set up a kitchen, re-organize the school day, and soon. These things take time.”
“Which explanation is the right one obviously has wildly different implications for policy, which is why more research would be useful. The problem is that people want answers now. They don’t have the patience to wait for 5-10 years to see what really matters, and why,” Jayaraman concludes.
The need for better nutrition in childhood is increasingly brought to the fore with several studies showing children’s poor nutritional habits. More than a quarter (27 percent) of young children do not consume a single discrete serving of vegetables on a given day, according to the findings from Nestlé’s Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) while new research from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) revealed that 60 percent of 11 to 16 year-olds buy foods such as fries or fried chicken at least once a week.
By Kristiana Lalou
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