AgriPulse Opinion: Global school feeding programs

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

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

Read the full article at AgriPulse.

Devex: More kids fed when school meals are national budget item, report finds

Including school meal programs as a line item in national budgets can help larger numbers of children get fed, according to a new report from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation.

The report found a correlation between the line items and number of children served. Sixty-six of the 83 countries surveyed include a line item for school meal programs in their national budgets, 65% of which were low-income.

 In countries without a line item, only 15% of primary and secondary school-age children were fed at school. In countries that did include the programs as a line item, 25% of children received meals at school.

Arlene Mitchell, executive director at GCNF, said levels of funding for school meal programs coming directly from governments can vary widely because the World Food Programme and NGOs often fund and implement them in low-income countries. Transitioning these programs to government control and national funding poses challenges, she said, particularly with budgeting.

The largest international school meal program effort, the U.S. McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, funds U.S.-based NGOs. It does not provide money directly to governments.

“It makes it challenging, but nonetheless important, for the nonprofits to work with national governments where they’re implementing the programs to help them figure out a way to take over,” Mitchell said. “It is difficult, though, to go from being entirely externally funded to being totally nationally funded.”

Read the full article on Devex.

CCGA: School Feeding: A Path to Recovery and a Better Future

On a mission to fill an information void, in 2019 the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) conducted a Global Survey of School Meal Programs©. We learned a great deal from that survey as can be seen in the new report School Meal Programs Around the World The COVID-19 pandemic has added tough lessons for school meal programs, however, and heightened the urgency for understanding and investing in these programs.

School meal programs have existed for decades—for more than a century in some countries. Yet they have not been documented in a consistent and comprehensive manner, making it hard to compare programs, determine successes and challenges, or identify trends, needs and opportunities. The GCNF survey, funded in part by the US Department of Agriculture, begins to fill this void, and plans to update the information every two to three years, with the second round to start this July.

The 2019 survey drew responses from 103 countries, representing 78 percent of the world’s population. Of those, 85 reported about one or more large-scale school meal program serving 297.3 million children between ages five and eighteen. All the countries reported focusing on primary schools, and two thirds reported also targeting pre-school children. Just under half (47 percent) said they targeted secondary school students.

School meal programs are a vital social safety net.

Almost three quarters of countries responding to our survey said that their programs were a social safety net, offsetting household costs for families of poor or vulnerable children. The alarming increase in out-of-school children and rising child hunger due to the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the need for such safety nets to expand as the entire food supply chain has been affected by the health crisis and many schools remain closed or unable to provide food.

Programs have responded innovatively by engaging different partners like food banks, restaurants, and churches and pivoting to different distribution methods such as pick-up, home delivery, or electronic vouchers. But programs will need to shift again to effectively bring children back to schools when it is safe, and it is critical that governments safeguard their school feeding budgets and ensure programs are part of pandemic recovery plans. One of the best-documented benefits of school meal programs is that they incentivize school attendance; and help children to focus on their lessons and learn.

The impact of school meals can be even greater for adolescent girls—especially in light of a predicted increase in rates of child marriage and teenage pregnancy around the world. Well-nourished girls achieve better learning outcomes, delay marriage and early pregnancy, and have the opportunity to advance their lives. Yet the survey found that only 47 percent of programs targeted secondary school students and regions with the lowest levels of secondary school feeding programs are where early marriage and pregnancy rates are the highest.

The survey shows that many countries are investing heavily in school meal programs, yet coverage is weakest precisely where the need is greatest. While financing remains a challenge in many countries, it is clear that programs were most successful when funding is earmarked in national budgets. Those investments are well justified, as school meal programs bring several pillars of development together under one umbrella. I used to think about school feeding as a trifecta, with wins for education, health and nutrition, and agriculture. The survey has given a more holistic picture of a spectrum of benefits and shown that school meal programs are actually better than a trifecta, by also driving inclusive economic growth.



School meal programs support producers and helps build resilient supply chains.

The survey found that these programs constitute significant institutional demand for safe and nutritious food. This supports producers, encourages production of healthier foods for children, and helps to build resilient supply chains. Harnessing this buying power could have a powerful and positive effect on both national and global food systems.

That’s not all: School meal programs create jobs and encourage private sector development. The survey noted over 4,000,000 jobs linked to school meal activities in the 53 countries that were able to provide some job-related data. Nigeria reported 107,000 cooks and food preparers; Burkina Faso, a low-income country that prioritizes school feeding reported 19,980 cooks and food preparers; and some 2.6 million paid “cooks cum helpers” were involved in India’s massive school meal program. Furthermore, school meal programs provide countries with an avenue to improve economic opportunities for women: Nearly all countries reported that between 75 and 100 percent of their school cooks are women. Unfortunately, 31 percent of programs said that very few or none of their school cooks were paid for their work.

In the wise words of GCNF’s co-founder Gene White, “[p]owerful things happen when parents, educators, community organizers, local businesses, and government officials within a school system share a common vision for healthy children. Yes, a child’s prospects are changed, but it is far more than that. Local farmers work with purpose knowing there’s a ready market for their goods. Jobs are created to distribute and produce food. Local economies grow stronger as children grow up to be healthy, productive citizens who can access and create opportunities. When systems work together in this manner, school nutrition programs are sustainable and scalable. Societies develop in which hunger is not a barrier to children’s learning and local economies thrive.”

The pandemic wreaked havoc on school systems and disrupted school meal programs around the world. At the peak of school closures in April 2020, 1.5 billion children were out of school, and 370 million children were not receiving the school meals they depend on. Program implementers worked desperately to adjust their programs to safely serve the most vulnerable despite the closure of schools, borders, travel and transport options, and most businesses. Funding for school meals was also taxed, as governments and donors alike focused their resources on health care, safety measures, and finding a cure. The 2021 Global Survey of School Meal Programs © will begin this July and aims to capture the impact of the pandemic for at least one full school year. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we invest more than ever in school meal programs as a path to recovery and toward a better future. Much better than a trifecta, no?

Read the full article on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Food for Thought blog.