Free school meals program and child nutrition

Wednesday, 3 April 2024 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Government recently launched an initiative to provide free meals to children studying in classes from Grade 1 to Grade 5 in all the public schools island-wide. The program is expected to cost Rs. 16,600 million, and it is implemented with the assistance from the World Food Programme as well as the United States Department of Agriculture. The free meal is offered as breakfast between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. prior to the commencement of learning activities based on the recommendation of nutritional experts.

The free school meals are provided at a time when the access to nutritious food has become a challenge to all age groups in the country since the onset of the economic crisis in 2022. A survey carried out by Save the Children last year revealed that almost 50% of the families in the country had been compelled to reduce the amount of food they feed their children due to a variety of reasons, with soaring inflation as well as loss of livelihoods being cited as the principal causes for the unfortunate predicament. Sri Lanka was among the top 5 countries with the highest food price inflation during September 2022 when its food inflation was measured at a staggering 94.9% by the Colombo Consumer Price Index. In such a backdrop, the decision by policymakers to offer free meals to school students is quite timely and should be commended irrespective of political differences.

The nutrition of school-aged children is an aspect which is often overlooked by parents as well as educators in Sri Lanka. In contrast, policymakers in developed countries pay considerable attention towards the nutrition of school-going children as they represent the future of their societies. In England, all children in reception, year one and year two are guaranteed a free lunch (and sometimes milk) as part of its universal infant free school meals scheme. Studies have repeatedly shown that improved nutrition has a direct impact on academic performance, memory, and other positive learning behaviours. Healthy eating gives children the essential nutrients for physical and cognitive development while a balanced diet helps strengthen bones, boosts immunity, maintains a healthy weight, and reduces the risk of chronic diseases later in life. 

While people in low-income groups struggle to feed their kids because of lack of means, the busy lifestyles of parents of affluent and middle-class families have prevented themselves from providing balanced and nutritious meals to their children. Especially, when both the mother and father are doing jobs, they do not have enough time to prepare a good-quality diet to their children before they go to schools. As a result, students end up eating short eats and junk food from canteens and groceries. The new initiative by the Government would no doubt be a relief to such parents.

Over the last few years (particularly during Gotabaya’s presidency), the prices of protein-rich food such as meat, egg, and fish went up significantly to the detriment of the youth as well as children. Thankfully, egg prices have currently come down to reasonable levels, giving a huge relief to consumers. Protein is such a critical nutrient for children as it builds, maintains and repairs body tissue apart from playing a crucial role in terms of aiding the growth of their bodies. Although protein can be obtained from plant-based food, it is only the sources of animal protein that provide all the essential amino acids the human body demands. However, there are instances when certain parents and school teachers discourage students from consuming meat and fish owing to their acceptance of vegetarianism/veganism.

Implementing a systematic and comprehensive action plan to raise the awareness of nutrition and balanced diets among school-going children is an absolute necessity to overcome the emerging issues associated with the health of children such as obesity and preference towards processed food as well as sugar-heavy soft drinks.