Millions of children need improved nutrition if they going to develop well in the first five years and then progress academically.
A good diet is vital for any child to grow and be healthy. But nutrition is also crucial for their bodies and brains to develop and for their ability to learn and fulfil their potential at school and in work.
Sadly, 151 million children under the age of five - that's over one in five - have stunted growth because they lack a nutritious diet. Wasting - low weight for their height - is also a serious problem for 51 million under-fives and millions of older children of school age.
More people were hungry in 2017 than at any time in the previous decade, according to a major report published by five major United Nations agencies. One in nine people now don't have enough food.
The report said improved nutrition leads to better growth, development and educational achievements in school-age children.
It emphasised two other major points on education:
- Without a sufficiently nutritious diet, learning ability and focus are greatly impaired - children struggle to concentrate in class
- Improving the nutrition of girls, women and children improves schooling and reduces gender inequalities
The report revealed the number of undernourished people of all ages has increased from 777 million to 821 million over the past two years.
“This is an alarming signal,” said Cindy Holleman, Senior Economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). She said conflicts, economic downturn and the effects of climate change were the main causes of the increased hunger statistics.
But she pointed out: “Many governments and organisations had made a lot of achievements in reducing hunger and it had been falling for 10 to 15 years,” adding that “the levels of hunger are nowhere they were, almost a decade ago”.
Using starvation as a weapon of war has become the new normal, with devastating consequences for children.
The report - The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World - was published this week by the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN children's agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
It said thinness - defined as low body mass index for age - affects one in four school-age children in India and is also above 15% in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The UN agencies said school nutrition programmes were one effective way to provide nutritious meals or snacks, supplements, nutrition information, education and counselling.
They said there should be more nutrition intervention programmes among school-age children, in addition to existing programmes for preschools.
The report added: "Schools are increasingly being recognised as an effective platform for providing nutrition and health interventions to school-age children and adolescents.
"School feeding programmes can help prevent hunger, increase school enrolment, reduce absenteeism and improve learning outcomes."
Theirworld has been running a pilot snack programme at two schools in Lebanon attended by Syrian refugee children.
The three-year pilot - supported by players of the UK People’s Postcode Lottery - was set up to examine how healthy school meals would affect attendance and learning. Theirworld will publish the findings from the programme soon.
The UN report came in the same week as Save the Children said 590,000 children in conflict zones could die from extreme hunger before the end of the year.
“Using starvation as a weapon of war has become the new normal, with devastating consequences for children," said Save the Children UK Chief Executive Kevin Watkins. "From Yemen to South Sudan, the failure to protect children from hunger is putting lives at risk."