Ideas & Insights / All Grantee Impact Stories / Ideas & Insights Grantee Impact Story

Kenya’s School Meals Disrupt Generational Poverty and Improve Community Outcomes

Rosaline Wanjiru Gitau completed high school as a C- student, but it’s not because she wasn’t smart or didn’t have dreams. Her grades suffered because there was never enough to eat.

“Concentrating was hard,” said Rosaline, 47, who grew up one of nine children. “I was always hungry.”

Rosaline thought a lot about cooking. In the school library, she copied down recipes by hand. She dreamt of owning a catering business.

Instead, she became a single mother of five who themselves often went without food. She worked odd jobs washing clothes or cleaning homes – never earning enough money.

“I was just so hungry at school that I would cry and get a headache,” said Rosaline’s youngest daughter, 11-year-old Robai.

“I knew they needed more food. I felt low,” her mother said.

The cycle seemed destined to repeat itself.

  • Robai Gitau, 11, in her classroom at Kuraiha Primary School. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

What changed the narrative, offering a chance to disrupt generational poverty? A school lunch program.

At Kuraiha Primary School, in rural Juja about 20 miles north of Nairobi, nutritious school lunches are contributing to improved societal outcomes long-term on at least four counts:

  • Helping children stay in school and learn more;
  • Influencing their later financial security;
  • Shaping lifelong physical and mental health outcomes;
  • Improving personal and communal security.
Robai’s mother, Rosaline Wanjriu Gitau, at the cafeteria where she helps prepare school meals. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

School Meals Allow Both Mother and Daughter to Plan for the Future

The centralized kitchen springs into action about 4 a.m. to provide daily nutritious meals for 12,000 students at Kuraiha and 17 other pre- and elementary schools in Juja. Kitchen workers chop bags of onions, carrots, tomatoes and cabbages to add to lentils, beans, or rice.

Thanks to the kitchen—run by the nonprofit Food4Education and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation as part of a grant to the World Food Programme—Robai now gets at least one hot meal a day.

“I got much brighter,” she insists, adding that this has made her believe she can accomplish her dream of becoming a doctor. “I see people are struggling. I want to help.”

Her mother is also optimistic enough to begin dreaming again. Rosaline has her first-ever steady job for Food4Education, helping prepare the meals in the kitchen. “This is the best job I’ve ever had. I love it from the depth of my heart,” she said. “And now, maybe someday I can still start a business.”

School feeding, the world’s largest safety net, is about equity and making opportunity universal, said Ruth Muendo, Food4Education’s Impact Manager. “It meets fundamental needs. And it allows us to match the opportunity to learn with the ability to learn.”

School feeding programs in Kenya have become especially important as drought increases food insecurity, and the meals are helping disrupt generational poverty.
young girl eating lunch
Teacher checking the Tap2Eat wrist band at lunchtime at Kuriaha Primary School. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

Nine Dollar Return for Every One Dollar Invested in School Meals

The Rockefeller Foundation supports Food4Education’s work with a digital mobile platform that allows lunch lines to move fast, and school and government officials to track the students they are reaching.

Students wear a bright orange smart wrist band, which is linked to a virtual wallet. With the Tap2Eat platform, parents contribute the equivalent of 15 cents per day for a subsidized lunch that would normally cost 50-70 cents.

“This is very important in tracking, proving, and expanding our impact,” said Muendo, who is a passionate advocate for universal school lunches, making sure all students receive affordable—or free—nutritious food.

The data is stark. Some 26.9 percent of the Kenyan population is undernourished and 23.6 percent of children under the age of five are stunted, according to the 2022 Global Hunger Index (GHI), which ranked Kenya 94 out of 121 countries with sufficient data to calculate GHI scores.

Globally, some 45 percent of all child deaths—or 3.1 million children each year—are from causes related to undernutrition. Across the developing world, 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry.

Today, 1.6 million Kenyan children in arid and semi-arid areas receive school meals, while 8.4 million go without. In October 2022, the Kenyan Parliament directed the Ministry of Education to develop a school feeding policy to cover all students in basic education.

And in April, Kenyan President William Ruto announced that the national government would match funds with every county government that provides school feeding programs.

“Let’s just look at return on investment,” said Muendo. “For every one dollar invested in school feeding, the return is about nine dollars—from jobs, to long-term health, to social impact, the need for correctional facilities. Clearly, the gains outweigh the costs.”

Empowering Communities to Feed Their Children

At Kuraiha recently, lunchtime looked like this: the scent of warm, fresh food, the chatter of excited voices rippling down two long lines that formed outside the classrooms. Large eyes in small faces watching closely as rice and mung beans (known locally as green grams) are spooned onto plates, some pushing bites into their mouths even before they turn away from the lunch ladies.

The addition of school lunches at Kuraiha has resulted in an increased enrollment from 1,200 to 1,800 pupils, as well as improved test scores, and a better sense of security since the students don’t have to leave school grounds to get lunch, said Kuraiha Deputy Headmaster Steven Ndirangu.

Miriam Mwandonyi, a teacher for the last ten years, is particularly focused on the way school meals support each individual student’s education.

The food served to students at Kuraiha Primary School is sourced directly from local farmers. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

“I am passionate about the children. I can see we have doctors and presidents among us,” she said. “But some of them come here without breakfast, and so when there is no lunch, they go hungry the whole day. How can they achieve their potential?”

Food4Education, founded in 2012 by nutritionist and food scientist Wawira Njiru, began as one small kitchen serving about 25 students in Ruira, Kenya, some 12 miles northeast of Nairobi’s central business district.

It has now served over 15 million meals to 100,000 students. In February 2023, Food4Education expanded its kitchens so it could serve five times the number of meals it had a year earlier, Njiru said.

Food4Education also has developed a specific approach:

  • It uses centralized kitchens and the cutting-edge technology of Tap2Eat
  • It aims to avoid waste, recycling bottles and paper and passing organic waste onto farms.
  • It sources food directly from local farmers. “We are keen on ensuring that local economies grow,” Muendo said. “The centralized kitchens allow us to be efficient and buy food at scale.”
  • It also integrates into the local economy by supporting regional employment, especially of women. “Some 70 to 80 percent of our 710 employees are women,” she said. “And we usually hire women who live locally to empower the community and create a sense of ownership. We have turned a normal household chore—cooking—into something that can give them an income. We also pay above the minimum wage to show we have the interest of the people at heart.”

Muendo dreams of seeing every Kenyan child receive adequate nutrition as a core foundation in their development.

  • With political will, I believe it is possible. And there is no more important goal than supporting the future of our children.
    Ruth Muendo
    Impact Manager, Food4Education