Majority of school children lack the food they need, thereby inducing malnutrition, now posing a serious threat to education, particularly in developing countries, including Nigeria. Malnutrition causes poor growth in children, leading to impaired mental development, poor scholastic and intellectual development.
A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), describes these effects as the most serious long-term results of malnutrition.
Although several organisations worldwide, governmental and private, have made efforts to combat and stop malnutrition, not much have been achieved in this direction.
Malnutrition is caused by a deficiency in the intake of nutrients by the cells of the body. A combination of two factors can be responsible.
These are: (i) insufficient intake of proteins, calories, vitamins, and minerals, (ii) frequent infections. Sickness like measles, malaria, diarrhea (frequent stooling) and respiratory disorder cause loss of nutrients in the body. They reduce appetite and food intake, contributing invariably to malnutrition.
Children suffer malnutrition most because they are in a period of rapid growth that increases the demand for calories and proteins.
UNICEF said that a deficiency of vitamin A affects over 100 million small children in the world and causes blindness. It also weakens the immune system, making them vulnerable to infections. For children who survive malnutrition, the consequences can follow into adulthood.
"The depletion of human intelligence on such a scale - for reasons that are almost entirely preventable is a profligate, even criminal, waste," UNICEF stated.
It added that, "more than 3/4 (three quarters) of all the malnutrition-aided deaths are linked not to severe malnutrition but to mild and moderate forms."
UNICEF submitted in the state of the world’s children thus.
"It is implicated in more than half of all child deaths worldwide-a proportion unmatched by any infectious disease since the black death. Yet, it is not an infectious disease. It ravages extend to the millions of survivors who are left crippled, chronically vulnerable to illness, and intellectually disabled. It imperils women, families and, ultimately the viability of whole societies."
Malnutrition is linked to a variety of illnesses - from under-nourishment as a result of lack of one or more nutrient - such as Vitamin and mineral deficiencies to obesity and other diet-related diseases. Regarded as by far the most lethal form of malnutrition is Protein - Energy Malnutrition (PEM).
The World Health Organisation called PEM "the silent emergency" whose major victims are children of school age. It declared that PEM "is an accomplice in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year."
Furthermore, malnutrition is said to cast long shadows, affecting close to 800 million people - 20% of all people in the developing countries. In other words, 1 out of every 8 people in the world suffers from malnutrition.
Ordinarily, malnutrition is the lack of food. But at the centre of it all is poverty, which affects about 80% of Nigerian population, weakening productivity and capacity of children to learn properly in school.
Vanguard Education Weekly investigation showed that recently, the Lagos state government attempted to tackle malnutrition among school children, when it launched a plan to provide free meal for pupils of less-privileged parents who do not enjoy balanced meals in their homes.
The government said it allocated N1 billion for its free meal programme in all its 913 primary schools.
It was part of the school health scheme meant to enhance the nutritional intakes of pupils. The first phase (pilot stage) was to begin with primary one, while pupils of the other classes would follow as government expected assistance from international organisations like, UNICEF and other donor agencies which had shown interest in the scheme.
But the programme seemed not to have taken off the ground, as malnutrition wreaks havoc in the school system. Most children attend classes with empty stomach, leaving their homes with little or no food. The proposed free mid-day meal would have been the saving grace for these undernourished children.
While the Nigerian government has not shown concern for the nutrition of school children in this country, the situation in neighbouring Ghana can be instructive.
The Ghanaian government has just announced a five-year plan to reduce hunger and malnutrition among pupils in schools across that country. An amount of $347.4 million (three hundred and forty-seven million, four hundred thousand dollars) have been earmarked for the programme; which will be in pilot phases. Children will be given one balanced meal a day for five days.
By this, short-term hunger and malnutrition among children will be reduced.
Except in Nigeria, in many other countries, government and private organisations have initiated food supplementation schemes for school children.
Communities can help in stemming the devastating tide of malnutrition by providing mid-day meals in schools, provide nutritional education programmes and safe drinking water supply.
Malnutrition has been identified as a big problem afflicting developing nations, especially school children from poor homes.
According to UNICEF, "a lack of access to good education and correct information is also a cause of malnutrition," adding: "Without information strategies and better and more accessible education programmes, the awareness, skills and behaviours needed to combat malnutrition cannot be developed."
Lack of food reduces, in turn, a person’s health and ability to get a better education.
While it has been agreed that there is more than enough food for all, the problem is that food is neither produced nor distributed equitably.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) pointed out that, "all too frequently, the poor in fertile developing countries stand by watching with empty hands - and empty stomachs - while ample harvests and bumper crops are exported for hard cash. Short-term profits for a few, long-term losses for many."
A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed that the richest fifth of the people on the planet eat 45% of all the meat and fish, the poorest fifth get just 5%. As attested by Encyclopedia Britannica, "the provision of an adequate food supply and nutritional education to all people, however, remains a crucial problem."