YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Although it may seem far-fetched for the westerner, but in Africa, there are children who can’t go to school for only one reason: Hunger.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Mali – a country in which the daily average wage is $1.25, and where average life expectancy of adults is 55 due to malnutrition and the lack of access to clean water.

With such excessive poverty, the right to education has remained an unrealized dream for millions of children in a country where rising insecurity has also meant that the limited progress made in education has been seriously eroded, with enrollment in elementary school dropping from 92 percent to 83.5 percent between 2011-2013, while the graduation rate decreased from 62 percent to 59 percent.

According to UNICEF, more than two million children between 5 and17 still do not go to school, and over half of Mali’s young people between 15 and 24 are illiterate.

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, has been working to change the situation.

“Education is a core part of our mission at CRS – building new opportunities for young people, and ending hunger among those we serve,” said Moussa Dominique Bangré, CRS Country Representative for Mali.

“When students have poor nutrition or hunger, there is a negative impact on their ability to learn. Drop-out rates increase, and they become more susceptible to illnesses like diarrhea, and intestinal parasites,” he told Crux.

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In 2007, CRS introduced a ‘Food for Education’ program, also known in the local Bambara language as Jigiya—meaning “hope.”

Originally conceived of as a school meals program designed to increase primary school enrollment and attendance rates, it has broadened to include further training for teachers.

“A warm, nutritious meal not only increases school enrollment, but our program also includes training for teachers, which is critical for improving the quality of education. We also are supporting improved water and sanitation facilities to reduce water-borne diseases and parasitic infections,” Bangré told Crux.

He said the program serves an average of 70,000 children annually in the Mopti and Koulikoro regions in Mali.

“From 2011-2014, enrollment in schools we are supporting has increased by 9 percent compared to 3 percent in Mopti and Koulikoro regions as a whole.  Today, our program continues to record more than 90 percent attendance in the regions where we are working,” he said.

Bangré said he was grateful to the Malian government for its continued support for the project, noting that the third phase that was launched in 2016 and worth $30 million should see school kitchens become self-sustaining by the time the phase ends in 2020. The program has been sustained by support from the United States Department of Agriculture McGovern-Dole program.

But CRS isn’t the only organization improving school enrollment and attendance by providing food to kids who go to school. The World Food Program has also been involved. When war began to give way to peace in Mali’s north in 2013, the WFP launched emergency food aid, and the results have been impressive: Enrollment increased by almost 20 percent in the 617 schools assisted by WFP in northern Mali.

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“I can tell you that lots of my friends and I come to school regularly thanks to the canteen. It also encourages students to come on-time because we know we’ll get breakfast when we arrive,” Ousamane Soumaila, a grade 6 student from Gao city told the WFP’s Krystle van Hoof.

Hoof also quotes the principal of a primary school in the village of Dendedjer in the Timbuktu region as saying that few children were attending school before WFP started providing school meals and that the enrollment rate has significantly increased since the school feeding program started.

Out of a total of 123 students, 122 have perfect attendance. The meals have really improved attendance and have also encouraged children to arrive on-time,” the principal said.

For Caritas, Mali isn’t an isolated case. Bangré told Crux that the organization is also implementing similar programs around the world, “including eight countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

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