By Marshall Matz and Julia Johnson, OFW Law

International school feeding programs have long been recognized as an important investment in a child’s nutrition and health outcomes. Recently, the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GNCF) set out to fill the need of documenting school feeding programs consistently and comprehensively through issuing the first of its kind Global Survey of School Meal Programs. They have just published findings from the survey in the new report “School Meals Around the World”, which provide necessary insight into the power of school meals in shaping the food and education system. The GCNF brings together governments, civil society, and the private sector to expand opportunities for children to receive adequate nutrition for learning and achieving their potential.

Teachers know all too well that hungry children do not learn effectively and that school meal programs are critical to satisfying this need. Beyond fulfilling daily health and nutrition needs, school meal programs incentivize regular school attendance, keep kids – particularly girls – in school for longer, promote literacy, and support agricultural supply chains, among other advantages.  Further, educating girls means that they get married later, have fewer children, and are upwardly mobile. 

The GCNF report found that nearly three-quarters of the programs served as a social safety net for families who could not afford to feed their children. A smaller percentage of programs aimed to meet agriculture goals or obesity prevention and mitigation outcomes. Dietary diversity increased when food was purchased closer to where the school meal program was located, with 82 percent of programs purchasing some or all school food in-country and 72 percent purchasing locally. In some instances, farmers were directly engaged in school meal operations. Programs can also play a significant role in women’s economic empowerment, with 67 percent of programs reporting a focus on creating jobs or leadership opportunities for women. 

Notably, the report finds that school meals have the potential to transform local food systems. Not only do they drive agricultural economic growth, but they also help shift food systems towards targeting the needs of children. Furthermore, schools serve as a food environment where healthy diets can be instilled. These findings are very timely given the upcoming U.N. Food Systems Summit (FSS) in September 2021. 

Input into the FSS is being guided by five action tracks, each charged with finding game-changing solutions to the world’s greatest food system challenges. In an interview conducted by GCNF Executive Director Arlene Mitchell on the report, Dr. Lawrence Haddad, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition Executive Director and FSS action track 1 chair, said that school feeding has often been featured in the solutions space for the FSS. He says, “The education system and the food system are intricately linked, and they can be made more intricately linked in a positive way.” 

Given the advantages of school meals, the 2002 Farm Bill authorized the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program. The program, implemented by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), delivers U.S. agricultural commodities and financial and technical assistance to food-insecure countries to establish school feeding programs. According to the most recent USDA report, McGovern-Dole is currently reaching over 4.1 million people through 46 active projects in 30 countries. 

GCNF also issued a special report on school meal programs in the 41 countries that received McGovern-Dole food assistance between 2013 and 2018 and/or were eligible to receive support in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. From the McGovern-Dole report findings, GCNF developed a series of recommendations for the U.S. government and implementing partners to increase program sustainability and therefore, as Dr. Haddad puts it, tie the food and education system together in a more meaningful way. These recommendations include increasing national government engagement, supporting fortified food supply chain development, increased monitoring and evaluation around gender, and formalizing job opportunities that support McGovern-Dole implementation.

COVID-19 has disrupted school meal programs, helping to drive unprecedented levels of hunger in modern history. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 370 million children have missed school meals due to COVID-19 related closures. Today, WFP estimates that 73 million primary school-aged children need school meals. Despite challenges, many schools have been able to pivot their programming by, for example, providing take-home rations. The reports from GCNF are a critical tool for those in the school feeding community and beyond to share knowledge, identify trends, strengths, and weaknesses in school feeding, and advocate for school meal programs, especially as a pathway to recovery and sustainable economic growth.

The GCNF is conducting their 2021 Global Survey of School Meal Programs which will aim to capture the full impact of COVID-19 of the pandemic for at least one full school year.  For more information, please visit www.survey.gcnf.org.

Marshall Matz specializes in global food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  mmatz@ofwlaw.com  Julia Johnson is an Agricultural Legislative Assistant at OFW Law.  jjohnson@ofwlaw.com 

Read the full article at AgriPulse.

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