The dual crisis of malnutrition and learning loss is starving the minds of tomorrow. The numbers are staggering: in the world’s poorest countries, nine out of ten children cannot read a basic book by the age of 10. This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider children that are learning in a context where the global food crisis is forcing one child every 60 seconds into severe malnutrition.
And this was the picture before the perfect storm of the “four Cs” — COVID-19, conflicts around the globe and the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the cost of living — threw our common future further into crisis. The urgent need of this moment demands that we stop business as usual, moving beyond sector siloes in support of transformational change.
As global philanthropic communities, we have an opportunity — and an urgency — to act together.
Children worldwide have lost an average of eight months of learning to pandemic lockdowns, exacerbating the failure of many education systems to support children to learn foundational skills.
Meanwhile, global hunger and malnutrition are skyrocketing after decades of decline, with recent research predicting that an increase as small as 5% in current global food prices would result in a staggering rise in child wasting — a form of malnutrition that not only withers the minds of the world’s most vulnerable children but is responsible for 1 in 5 of their deaths.
With poverty also increasing for the first time in twenty years, today’s children may be the first in generations to be worse off than their parents.
The dual crisis of malnutrition and learning loss is worst in Africa
These realities are nowhere more apparent than on the African continent. The number of people experiencing acute food insecurity has spiked by 60% in East Africa and by nearly 40% in West Africa in just the last year.
Together, these issues are hitting the next generation hard: of the 66 million school-age children who go to school hungry every day in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), 23 million of those are in Africa.
One in four children under five in LMICs are affected by stunting, a measure of chronic undernutrition which negatively affects height, cognitive development, and metabolic health for the rest of their lives. Young people affected by stunting enrol in school later, drop out earlier, and earn less than their peers in adulthood, translating to $176.8 billion of lost productivity per year.
This Africa Day of School Feeding, an annual high-level convening moment, led by the African Union and this March 1st will be the eighth edition, we must recognize the tragic interconnectedness of education and malnutrition.
Put simply, we will never be able to solve the global learning crisis if children do not have adequate access to nutritious food — both in their schools and during the critical early years of their lives when so much of their potential is formed. 35% of brain development occurs in the 2-3 weeks after birth, with 80% of a child’s brain developed by the age of 3.
By the time a child is five, powering their brain requires half of the calories they consume. The consequence? Malnutrition stops education in its tracks: children that are malnourished in the earliest years of their lives will never be able to learn to their full potential.
Childhood malnutrition also impairs brain development and academic performance throughout the school years. Malnourished children score 7% lower in maths tests and are 19% less likely to be able to read at age 8. This has lifelong impacts, with the World Food Programme estimating that child undernutrition costs African countries up to 16.5% of their national gross domestic product annually.
By 2030, young Africans will comprise 42% of the global youth population. We simply cannot live in a world where nearly half of us are left behind. This must be the moment when we decide to fully invest in our future, lest the cracks in child health and education become chasms for the next generation.
The good news is that we have a growing body of evidence that interventions working at the intersection of education and nutrition can be transformative in addressing this dual crisis. We now know, for instance, that school feeding programs can be very effective at getting children into school and helping them stay there, increasing enrollment and reducing absenteeism. They can also contribute to children’s education by enhancing their ability to concentrate and learn, particularly when we ensure that children eat nourishing foods like whole grains rather than empty calories.
And schools can be an incredible platform for teaching good health and nutrition to the parents of tomorrow, turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.
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We also know that there are a range of evidence-based and remarkably cost-effective investments that can be made early on in a child’s life to ensure they are healthy enough, once they reach the classroom, to make the most of their education. Interventions like prenatal vitamins, exclusive breastfeeding, and access to diverse diets and fortified foods can be the difference between a life brimming with potential and one that is not.
The education and nutrition philanthropic communities are rallying around this evidence. If we work together at key moments in a child’s life, we can plant the seeds for change.
The Rockefeller Foundation and the World Food Programme, for instance, announced in January 2023 an initiative to strengthen school meals for millions of children, recognising that these programmes can help support local agriculture and markets while improving health, nutrition and education and outcomes in the most vulnerable communities.
IDP Foundation has been working with local partners to support low-fee private schools in underserved communities for over a decade, and its CEO Corina Gardner, is seeing firsthand evidence of the consequences of failing to ensure all children receive access to nutritious meals, and as she said:
“The cost of feeding in schools is becoming prohibitive. At the same time, we are hearing from teachers in Ghana and Kenya that students are showing up hungry and struggle to concentrate or fall asleep in class. We need to explore how to better link nutrition and education interventions to reflect the interdependent nature of these critical services both in and out of the classroom.”
We need far more – and far more urgent – action: every moment that goes by is another mind stunted. By creating the space to reflect and take action on these interconnected systems, private donor communities, like Stronger Foundations for Nutrition and the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) can build bridges across sectors that have been wrongly fragmented, pooling learning and aligning resources in pursuit of a common cause of child development.
We call on our global philanthropic communities — and our diverse ecosystems of partners — to break out of our silos and take bold coordinated action. Both for the children of today and for a stronger tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Educating and Empowering Mothers in Rwanda: A “Be the Change” volunteer leads a nutrition education class. Featured Photo Credit: USAID.