How regularly do school children eat in Southern Africa?

I’m currently working on a paper for SACMEQ which compares the educational performance of Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. I decide to include one or two things on here for those who are interested. The above graph shows the meal frequency of Grade 6 students (approx 13 yrs old) in each of the countries – click to enlarge. One or two observations:

The importance of nutrition for cognitive development has been well established in the literature. Del Rosso (1999, p. 5) provides a concise summary of the impact of poor nutrition:

“Children who lack certain nutrients in their diet (particularly iron and iodine), or who suffer from protein-energy malnutrition, hunger, parasitic infections or other diseases, do not have the same potential for learning as healthy and well-nourished children. Weak health and poor nutrition among school-age children diminish their cognitive development either through physiological changes or by reducing their ability to participate in learning experiences – or both … Children with diminished cognitive abilities and sensory impairments naturally perform less well and are more likely to repeat grades and drop out of school than children who are not impaired; they also enrol in school at a later age, if at all, and finish fewer years of schooling.”

In response to this, and partially as an initiative to alleviate child hunger, many low income countries have implemented school feeding programs, including Botswana and South Africa. Figure 26 below shows the proportion of Grade 6 students that reported receiving at least one free school meal per day. Botswana has the highest proportion (91%), followed by South Africa (78%), Namibia (25.64%), and Mozambique (12.64%). The success of Botswana’s school feeding program is widely acknowledged, and has also been credited with improving school attendance rates in the country (Zuze, 2010, p. 3).

Although free school meals can make up for a lack of nutrition at home, the majority of a child’s nutrition will come from the home-context. The SACMEQ III survey provides a useful measure of meal frequency. One question in the student questionnaire asked “How often do you eat each of the following meals?” (breakfast, lunch and supper), with the four options being ‘every day of the week’, ‘3 or 4 days per week’, ‘1 or 2 days per week’, and ‘not at all’. The results of this question split by country are shown in Figure 27 below.  Three observations are worth noting:

1)      There is a high proportion Mozambican and Namibian students who do not eat breakfast regularly, if at all. Indeed, 30% of Grade 6 children in Mozambique and Namibia reported that they only at breakfast once or twice a week, or not at all, compared to 19% in South Africa and 18% in Botswana. This can have a detrimental effect on learning. As Del Rosso (1999, p. 5) notes: “Even temporary hunger, common in children who are not fed before going to school, can have an adverse effect on learning. Children who are hungry have more difficulty concentrating and performing complex tasks, even if otherwise well nourished”.

2)      14% of Namibian children reported that they only at lunch once or twice a week, or not at all, compared to 11% for South Africa, 8% for Mozambique, and 7% for Botswana.

3)      There is a surprisingly low proportion of Batswana students who reported having supper every day (81%), compared to Namibia (86%), South Africa (87%), and Mozambique (92%).

It is perhaps counter-intuitive that Mozambique should have the highest proportion of students receiving lunch and supper ‘every day’. However, this may be because many Mozambican children do not receive a morning meal and thus their parents are more likely to give them mid-day and evening meals. If this were the case, one might expect Namibia to show a similar trend since it also has a low proportion of students receiving breakfast ‘every day’, yet it does not seem to exhibit such a trend.

Although meal frequency is an important indicator of nutritional intake, it provides no indication of nutritional content. Within our four country sample, it is not unreasonable to assume that there is a positive relationship between nutritional-content of the average meal and GDP per capita. For example, it is more likely that South African children have access to iodized salt and fortified cereals than do their Mozambican counterparts. Therefore, although 92% of Mozambican children report that they receive supper ‘every day’ (compared to 87% of South African children), one should be aware that these meals most probably have differing nutritional content.

These results can be found in this SACMEQ Working Paper

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