Access to free school lunch creates health benefits for a lifetime

A study of India's Midday Meal program shows clear nutritional benefits that are even passed on to the next generation

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MD Duran

School lunch programs are widely known to improve children’s health and education, but their benefits may extend even further than once thought. According to a recent study from the International Food Policy Research Institute, India’s national school meal program may provide intergenerational health benefits extending to participants’ own children.

India’s Midday Meal is the largest school meal program in the world, feeding around 100 million school children each year. The success of this program led researchers to wonder whether meal recipients grew up to have healthier children of their own.

The team found that women who grew up with school meals had young children (ages 0 to 5) who were taller for their age than the children of women who did not receive school meals. There were also fewer children with very short heights for their age, a common sign of malnutrition, among women who had experienced greater access to school meals. These differences were largest at low socioeconomic statuses, suggesting that school meals may be most beneficial for children with few resources at home.

They also found that school meals were associated with improved education and healthcare use by women, which may partially explain the nutritional gains in their children. This study highlights how a single free meal a day can have cascading effects across lifetimes.