Elementary school children in India who have been enrolled in a free lunch program for several years experience significantly better learning outcomes compared to students who have been participating for less than a year, according to a new study led by researchers from the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) Berlin.
The findings, published in the Journal of Development Economics, suggest that good nutrition in childhood has a positive cumulative effect that goes beyond the immediate benefits.
In the study, researchers found that children with up to five years of midday meals scored 18 percent higher on reading tests compared to students with less than a year of school lunches. They also showed an improvement of 9 percent on math tests.
Professors Rajshri Jayaraman, from ESMT Berlin, and Tanika Chakraborty, from the Indian Institute of Technology, studied the effects of India’s Midday Meal Scheme, the world’s largest free school lunch program, which feeds over 120 million children every day.
“The effect of nutrition appears to be cumulative, seen over time,” says Jayaraman. “Previous studies have varied between two weeks and two years and failed to capture the important impact — our research shows that the real benefit of school lunches was seen in children exposed for two to five years.”
The study is the longest and largest to look at the effects of midday meals on primary school-aged children’s learning. The researchers analyzed data from nearly 600 rural districts in India, involving more than 200,000 households. Due to the staggered implementation of the program across districts, the researchers were able to identify the causal effect of regular meals on learning.
Although India has been experiencing a boost in economic growth, the country still struggles to adequately feed its population. Nutrition continues to be the nation’s primary challenge, as it has a very high prevalence of undernourishment and micronutrient deficiency.
The new findings confirm the enormous value of the free school meal programs that are operating all around the world. According to the World Food Program, 368 million children globally — that’s one in five — received a school meal in 2013, at a cost of 75 billion U.S. dollars.
Source: ESMT Berlin