School feeding programs in Kenya

March 20, 2024


Milka Njeri

Research Officer

By Milka Wanjohi, with contributions from Felistus Mwalia.

The double burden of malnutrition weighs heavily on Kenya’s school-age children and adolescents, who make up a significant portion of the population at 36%.The World Health Organization advocates for food systems that prioritize healthy, sustainable diets to address the burden of malnutrition especially in developing nations like Kenya. National policies, including the Constitution of Kenya 2010, Vision 2030, and the Food and Nutrition Security Policy 2012, underscore the importance of nutrition for all citizens. However, despite these policies, undernutrition remains a pressing concern, while rates of overweight and obesity are on the rise among this demographic. Malnutrition has detrimental effects on growth, cognitive development and school performance, and has long-term health outcomes for children and adolescents.

In Kenya, school going children and adolescents spend most of their time in school, about 75% of the year, where they consume more than half of their daily meals. The school environment is, therefore a suitable platform for promoting and providing healthy diets as a strategy to reduce the risks of malnutrition and realise the right to adequate food and nutrition for children as envisaged in the constitution. Recognizing the critical role of schools in children’s lives, both in education and nutrition, the Government of Kenya and development partners initiated the School Meal Programme in 1980, aimed at providing mid-day meals to children in public primary schools especially those in arid, semi-arid areas and urban slums that are prone to droughts and food insecurity. In 2009, the school meal program was restructured into a more sustainable and nationally owned Home-Grown School Meals Programme (HGSMP), which prioritizes the local food supply to schools. Under the HGSMP, the Government disburses funds directly to schools and provides guidelines in key aspects of school meals, such as the nutritional composition of food baskets, adequate procurement processes and monitoring/evaluation. The schools then bear the responsibility of procuring foods that are locally produced and culturally acceptable.

To compliment/ supplement the HGSMP, other school feeding initiatives have been developed and implemented in various contexts to address the nutritional needs of school going children. An example of such initiatives is the Dishi na county initiative, implemented by the Nairobi city county, targeting public primary schools and early childhood education centres in its jurisdiction. The initiatives involves establishment of centralised kitchens in strategic locations, from which food is prepared in large scale and transported to the eligible schools. The aim of the initiative is to provide hot nutritious and balanced meals to children at highly subsidised cost as a strategy to improve their nutritional status, increase school enrolment and performance. The establishment of the centralised kitchens is based on the premise that it reduces the cost of construction, food purchase, preparation, labour, and energy that would be incurred in setting up separate kitchens in all the schools within the county.

The African Population and Health Research Center conducted a study to explore the experiences of schools in implementing school meal programs. The study involved in-depth discussions and workshops with school community including school leadership, teachers, caterers/chefs, students, parents and food vendors in and around the school. Participants in these discussions acknowledged the important role that the provision of school meal plays, in enhancing school enrolment, attendance and concentration in class by the learners, highlighting that some of the students lack food at home and rely on the school meal as their only meal for the day.

However, challenges persist in implementing these programs effectively. Financial constraints, including insufficient government funding and delays in fee payments from parents, often hinder schools’ ability to provide balanced meals. As a result, most of the schools meals have little diversity, they mainly include as cereal (maize/rice) and legume/pulse (beans/green grams) an are often deficient in fruits, vegetables and animal protein that are important sources of nutrients required for optimal growth and development of children and adolescents.

The study also revealed that the governments provides a fixed amount (capitation) per school going child to cater for all school related expenses including meals, but this is not always enough to sustain the school meal program, in the context of the increasing prices of food and related commodities in  the country. In such cases, parents are required to contribute a lunch levy, but delays in school fees payment, due to economic challenges often makes it difficult for schools to provide adequate and nutritionally balanced meals to children.

Some schools have established school gardens to supplement the school meal program, but inadequate space, farming inputs and poor attitude, knowledge and skills in farming hinder school gardening and optimal production for those who are already implementing school gardening.

Furthermore, most of the government led school meal initiative do not cover private schools. As such, even the low cost private schools from urban slums do not benefit from school government’s meal initiatives, despite the high levels of malnutrition, poverty and food insecurity in the communities that they serve.

Lack or inadequate school meal infrastructure and facilities such as storage facilities, kitchens and energy saving methods, dining spaces and water supply also impede the implementation of school meal programs. School with poor or inadequate storage facilities often experience food spoilage and wastage and have to procure perishable goods on daily basis and discard any food remains, which is non-economical and inconvenient. Inadequate and intermittent water supply to schools also is a key challenge in implementing the school meal program, especially for schools that have not installed water storage facilities. In such cases, water shortage compromises food safety and hygiene increase the risks of contamination and food poisoning to the children.

Some schools still use traditional cooking method such as firewood, which is not only time and energy inefficient, but also a source of pollution in the school and the surrounding environs. The study participants raised concerns of poorly (undercooked), non-fresh foods and encountering smoke in their offices and classrooms as result of poor storage and cooking facilities.

Despite these challenges, school meal programs offer significant benefits, for local communities. They are a source of livelihood and income for the local community, especially the farmers, food vendors and small and micro-entrepreneurs supplying foods to the schools. However, high food prices, resulting from increased cost of food production and transportation coupled with droughts in the recent years were raised as a challenge in the food supply to the schools. Inadequate capital and food price fluctuations, delays in payments by the schools and inefficient tendering processes also greatly hamper their potential for sustained food supply to the schools.

In conclusion, addressing the challenge of malnutrition in Kenya’s schools demands a comprehensive strategy that integrates policy reforms, infrastructure enhancements, and community involvement in implementing school meal programs. Proposed strategies include:

  1. Increased government funding for school feeding programs to enrich meal diversity and nutritional quality, alongside the establishment of essential facilities for optimal implementation, as underscored in the study.
  2. Expansion of school feeding initiatives to encompass low-cost private schools, particularly in low-income and food-insecure areas like urban slums.
  3. Implementation of school gardens and adoption of innovative, resource-efficient farming practices, bolstered by agricultural extension services to equip students and school staff with agroecological food production skills. Integration into existing government initiatives, such as the 4K clubs/ young farmers clubs launched in 2021, could facilitate this process.
  4. Subsidization of food production and transportation costs to mitigate high food prices while empowering local communities, especially youth and women, to participate in the school food supply chain. This presents an opportunity for youth employment and income generation.

By embracing these strategies, Kenya can address can implement successful school meal programs, fostering healthier, more resilient communities and securing a brighter future for generations to come.

This study was carried out as part of the Knowledge and Research for Nutrition project (K&R4Nut) of the European Commission (EC), implemented by Agrinatura. The project has set up a Nutrition Research Facility (NRF) to conduct analyses based on scientific knowledge. The content does not necessarily reflect the views of the EC