Decades before I broke the world record in the marathon, I would run to school each morning—three miles through my homeland, the Rift Valley of Kenya. Why? Because at school, I had a nutritious meal waiting for me, provided by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).
The WFP school meals program changed my life. I went from a boy who couldn’t concentrate in class to one who literally ran to and from school each day. This helped unlock my athletic talent that led me to set the marathon world record in 2003.
Today, I have two Olympic silver medals and serve on the International Olympic Committee. But, inside me still lives the little boy who grew up in a family of 17 children and went to bed hungry each night, dreaming of the meal awaiting me at school the next day. That is why I am visiting the United States in my role as a WFP Ambassador Against Hunger to advocate for U.S. support for international school meal programs.
Hunger is a solvable problem, and school meal programs are a solution proven to work. Every year, WFP provides school meals to 22 million children in 60 countries. But that covers only a fraction of the need. There are 66 million primary-school children across the globe, including 23 million in Africa alone, who come to school hungry each day.
Feeding kids in school makes sense. First, school meal programs help kids lead healthier lives. They significantly reduce hunger for millions of the world’s poorest children, many of whom suffer from malnutrition. Every year, more than 3 million children around the world die from malnutrition. School meal programs provide healthy food to kids who desperately need it. Many of these programs also provide take-home rations, which help reduce hunger for entire families.
Second, these programs boost school enrollment and academic performance. Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty that plagues so much of the developing world. However, many poor families keep their children at home—to work in the fields or family business, or because their societies do not support education for girls. When children are provided a healthy meal at school, their parents are more likely to send them to school and keep them there. School meal programs have a particularly positive effect on girls’ school attendance. And kids learn better after eating a nutritious meal, because they can focus on their studies rather than their stomachs.
Third, school meal programs help local economies. The WFP supports “home grown feeding,” where local farmers provide most of the food for the school meals in their countries. These programs can give farmers the support they need to become self-sufficient, lifting up entire communities.
All told, school meal programs provide an impressive return on investment: every $1 invested yields $3 in economic returns. In fact, WFP programs have proven so successful that they are often taken over by the host countries: 37 nations have “graduated” from WFP assistance and assumed responsibility for their own programs.
The United States has long played a leadership role in combatting world hunger. The U.S. Agriculture Department’s McGovern-Dole Program supports international school meal programs, many of which are run by the WFP. Named after two former U.S. Senators who worked tirelessly to end world hunger, the McGovern-Dole Program has helped feed millions of school children and boosted girls’ enrollment in school by an average of 17%. Generous donations from American companies, charities, and individuals have also contributed to the enormous success of these programs.
Unfortunately, much more needs to be done. In poor countries where need for school meals is the greatest, coverage of school meal programs is the lowest. Today, on World Food Day, please take a moment to help those who will go to bed hungry tonight. Write a letter to your Member of Congress urging support for the McGovern-Dole Food Program. Donate to World Food Program USA, the U.S. charity that raises American dollars for WFP school meal programs. Start your own fundraising campaign and engage your friends and family to help solve global hunger.
School meal programs work. They keep kids in schools. They support local economies. Most importantly, they save lives, allowing poor children to survive, thrive, and achieve their dreams. I am living proof.