Photograph courtesy USDA
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Students at the Stara Rescue Center take a break from their studies to meet U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec in Nairobi, Kenya on February 21, 2013.
Photograph courtesy USDA

It Takes A School To Raise A Village

By Hunter Biden, World Food Program USA Board Chairman
& Rick Leach, President & CEO of World Food Program USA

Millions of parents across the U.S. are getting ready for the annual back-to-school shopping season.

Between notebooks and backpacks and electronics and apparel, we know how quickly costs can add up.

As children to go back to school this fall, we’re reminded of the millions of children around the world who lack one of the most crucial back-to-school supplies of all: food. Without proper nutrition, children can’t focus, they can’t learn, and they can’t grow into strong, healthy adults.

This fall, the average American family will spend $669.28 on back-to-school supplies, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s $26.5 billion nationwide.

If Americans donated one-tenth of one percent of this amount to feed hungry children—or 6 cents per family—the U.S. could feed 104 million children around the world.

At the Stara Rescue Centre school in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, the school’s students—boys and girls who have already endured so much in their young lives—still harbor the same dreams as any child across the globe. They talk about becoming doctors, teachers, writers, and artists. They ask about the U.S. and about their dreams of visiting one day. They share hopes about moving out of Kibera and into “the city,” having their own families, and giving back to their communities so their children could one day have what they didn’t.

With its dirt floor and tin roof, it looks more like a humble shack than a place for children to cultivate hungry minds. But for its students, the school not only represents an opportunity out of the slum’s extreme poverty, it’s also the only place where they can count on a steady meal.

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Stara Rescue Center school founder Josephine Mumo (left), U.S. ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec (center), and World Food Program director in Kenya Ronald Sibanda (right) worked together to prepare meals for students in February 2013. Photograph courtesy USDA

Fueled in part by nourishing food from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), these students no longer have to worry about feeding themselves. Instead, they can focus on their futures.

At the cost of 25 cents each, school meals are one of the most affordable investments the world can make in its collective future. It’s also one of the smartest. WFP estimates that every dollar invested in school meals yields $3 in economic returns.

School meals don’t just help hungry children either. They improve the lives of entire families and communities by boosting attendance and graduation rates. School meals encourage parents to keep their kids in the classroom by easing the burden of putting food on the table. In developing countries like Somalia, school meals improve gender equality by helping feed girls who would otherwise be forced into marriage or the workforce to feed themselves. When prepared using locally grown food, school meals create a reliable market for small farmers and boost local economies.

As Americans across the country begin their back-to-school shopping, remember the millions of boys and girls around the world who can’t learn on an empty stomach; the communities that can’t flourish without educated children, and the progress the world can’t achieve as a result.

No child should grow up hungry and every child should have the opportunity to learn. The well-being of all nations —indeed the entire world—begins with good nutrition and education. After all, food is a basic building block of life.

Hunger is the single greatest problem facing humanity today. Each year, hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. But it is also solvable—and providing school meals is one of the most effective solutions.

We can solve hunger with the right equation: Education + School Meals = Zero Hunger For Millions Of Kids. 

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.