The playground appeared perfectly normal with students clustered here and there laughing and enjoying their lunch break. But if you looked closely, you’d notice another group milling about or sitting alone, the students with empty lunch pails.
We were visiting a primary school in Kenya that was situated on a large coffee plantation. Many of the children would leave school to pick coffee when the beans were ready to harvest. In this part of the world, jobs are scarce and coffee is the only available work for entire families. Parents simply keep the kids home from school to work in the fields, 13 hours a day for the equivalent of less than a dollar. Once the coffee has been picked, the children will return to classes, where they have inevitably fallen behind in their schoolwork.
That same coffee, harvested by hungry children, will ultimately earn a handful of multi-national companies an 8000% return when it's sold in Europe and the United States.
Just before lunch, I had interviewed the school principal who told me that more than half the students at her school had nothing to eat during the school day. Those students with lunch would have only what they could manage to bring from home or a piece of sugarcane to chew on. Those without food would put stones in their lunchbox in an effort to fool the teachers and avoid the shame of being the poorest among the poor.
So now, I’m looking at the playground in an entirely different way. Who has food? Who is hungry?
Save The Children UK reports that half a billion children suffer from chronic malnutrition of the kind invisibly stalking that Kenyan playground. These children are on a slow daily grind to compromised health: weakened immune systems and death from opportunistic illnesses like diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. One third of all of the children in developing countries are malnourished and over 3 million of them die as a result every year.
But there are successful solutions, with proven results, to ending child hunger.
In 2016, The World Food Program fed over 20 million children through school lunch programs in 80 countries but the agency estimates that 66 million children, world-wide, still go to school hungry every day.
This is clearly a preventable catastrophe and we know how to prevent it. The World Food Program has been feeding children in schools for 45 years.
A WFP lunch can take many forms, breakfast of fortified porridge, or a mid-morning snack of biscuits, each with sufficient nutrients to prevent the chronic malnutrition that’s so deadly to children. For families with orphaned children and to encourage young girls to come to school, a take-home ration of rice or oil is sometimes provided.
Academically, students who aren’t hungry are more attentive and have higher marks, absenteeism is reduced and fewer children need to repeat grades.
In remote areas, school attendance can increase four-fold when a lunch program is established.
Health benefits go beyond the obvious impacts on hunger. Having children at the school creates a chance to run de-worming and vaccination programs. As a supplementary benefit, the programs connect local farmers, parents, cooks and local markets, thus improving the local economy by putting adults to work.
And when adults have employment, they can afford to send their children to school.
If you want to reduce child labor, poverty, hunger and gender inequality – there’s no more direct way to do it than through education. If you want to enhance education and get those kids out of the worst forms of child labor, add food and health care to the mix at the local school and marvel at the positive impacts on young lives.
So what would this cost, if we were really serious about getting it done?
The WFP tells us that feeding the 66 million primary school-aged children who attend school hungry would cost 3.2 billion dollars a year. Presently, the program receives about a sixth of that amount or less than 500 million dollars a year. The World Bank estimates that it would take about 10 billion dollars a year to reach 90% of the malnourished children world-wide, in school or out, a cost they characterize as reasonable, if divided among wealthier donor countries. A global financial transactions tax is an innovative and effective way of raising those revenues and it would spread the cost fairly with the bulk of the monies coming from the under-taxed global financial system.
What is the value we place on the health and lives of a half billion children?
Child hunger can be eliminated and should be eliminated. 193 countries have said as much by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals. But those same goals, represent a fifteen year plan, and the children with stones in their lunch pails don't have the luxury of time. Their childhoods are now.