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Global School Meal Leaders Gear Up for a Tough Year

In a Benin city snuggled against the Atlantic Ocean, 244 leaders from 44 countries gathered to discuss that part of schooldays everywhere when students, stomachs often growling, unceremoniously push aside books to rush toward lunch.

Participants in the 23rd annual Global Child Nutrition Forum, the world’s largest conference focused on school meals, strategized for four days on perennial challenges such as lack of sufficient funding. They considered newer complications such as population displacements due to climate change. They took up acute issues like current food insecurity triggered in part by the year-long Ukraine war.

From Cameron to Cambodia, Fiji to Finland, government leaders and their partners dove into topics ranging from letting students help choose menus, to relying on food grown in their own gardens, to using school meals to support local economies.

  • Students share school meals at Primary School Ko Anagodo, Benin. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Lazuta CRS)

Whether their schools serve creamed soup, curried goat, rice and beans, or pita bread sandwiches, whether they operate by seashore or in a city or a desert, one point received universal agreement: school meals accomplish a lot at once.

They directly impact student and communal health, educational outcomes and even future economic stability. And many school feeding programs are facing urgent needs accompanied by growing hunger in their communities.

“Governments know how important school nutrition is, but are struggling with the effects of climate change, Covid-19 and high food prices. We want them to know they are not alone,” said Arlene Mitchell, Executive Director of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF). “The Forum brings them peer support and ideas for dealing with the challenges—and boosts morale.”

“The Forum offers a variety of activities and experiences to support different modes of learning and sharing, with a strong emphasis on governments learning from governments,” added Heidi Kessler, GCNF’s Deputy Director. “Problems get solved.”

The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting GCNF in its ongoing work to bring together a global alliance of leaders dedicated to becoming a catalyst to advance school feeding. The work is part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 10-year goal to improve the dietary quality of 500 million underserved people through an equitable and regenerative food system.

“School feeding programs provide hundreds of millions of children with their only reliable meal of the day. Expanding and refining those programs will make children healthier,” said Catherine Bertini, Managing Director for The Rockefeller Foundation’s Global Nutrition Security Initiative. “We are thrilled to back GCNF’s efforts to address inequities that impact children’s well-being and ability to learn while focusing on sustainable, locally grown meals that are healthy for the planet.”

  • Illustration of discussion from the 2022 Annual Global Child Nutrition Forum. (Illustration courtesy of GCNF)

School Meal Programs an Efficient Answer to Food Insecurity

Since its founding, GCNF has seen growing recognition globally of the importance of school meals for students and their communities. But even with enormous strides, difficulties remain, some heightened this year.

The World Bank has projected food insecurity will reach a new peak in 2023, driven by diverse factors including disruptions in the supply chain, a fall in global cereal production, higher commodity prices and rising inflation.

A Haitian man complaining about bad quality rice shows a bunch of it in his hand as two other Haitians carry a sack of rice received as food aid on February 11, 2010 at a camp for people that have been displaced from their homes by the deadly earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. Some 1.2 million were left homeless by the disaster. (Photo courtesy of Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

A record 349 million people across 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity – up from 287 million in 2021, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). This constitutes a rise of 200 million people compared to pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels. More than 900,000 people worldwide are fighting to survive in famine-like conditions.

Why the increase? Conflict is the biggest driver, with 60 percent of the world’s hungry people living in areas afflicted by war. Climate shocks increase food insecurity. And then inflation and disruption of supply chains contribute to both availability and affordability.

A Benin school at lunchtime. (Photo courtesy of GCNF)

“School feeding programs are a very cost-effective mechanism for reaching vulnerable people,” Mitchell said. “Globally, the idea of purchasing locally has taken off—ideally from small-holder farms so economic benefits are increased for the community. So, there are new challenges, but also exciting economic opportunities.”

GCNF’s Global Survey of School Meal Programs, which collected data on the 2020 school year, showed that at least 330.3 million children received food through school meals in the 139 countries included—a share of 27 percent of primary and secondary age children.

In addition to data and trends, the survey highlighted noteworthy practices. For instance, in Syria, women gain employment in a factory producing date pastries for school meals, while in Tunisia, a number of rural women’s cooperatives operate school gardens.

Benin Provides School Lunches to 75 Percent of Its Schools

When Alice Mingninou was growing up, school meals were not provided. “I was lucky,” said Mingninou, today Benin’s School Feeding Technical Advisor to the Ministry of Preschool and Primary Education. “I lived near the school so I could go home to eat at noon and get back for afternoon classes. But some students lived so far away that they just didn’t eat anything at all at midday.”

Today, Benin, a country of about 13.4 million people with a literacy rate of about 42.4 percent, provides a feeding program in 75 percent of its schools, up from 51 percent in 2021. Mingninou hopes they will reach 100 percent soon. She notes that challenges remain.

  • Benin "lunch ladies" prepare a school meal. (Photo courtesy of the WFP)

“Transportation costs are rising for food. Some schools are difficult to access if it rains heavily,” she said. “We know there are still some poor areas where children are suffering from malnutrition.”

She is grateful that Benin had the chance to host the latest Forum in November 2022. “We got to highlight our national feeding program while immersing ourselves in this topic,” she said. “We saw demonstrations on how to use fruits and vegetables to achieve balanced nutrition for students, and discussed new approaches. We learned so much. We will be implementing a lot of it over time.”

In southeastern Benin, Pierre Dahkindji is the Food Director for 96 boys and 67 girls at Fingninkanme Elementary School in Dangbo, a job he’s held for the last five years. He oversees a model school meals program, singled out for visits by both the WFP and the First Lady of Burundi.

The students’ favorite meal is amiwo, a Benin national dish often made with chicken broth, tomato paste, corn flour and various spices, he said.

“For about half the kids, this is their only hot meal of the day,” he said. “We would have a lot more dropouts if we didn’t provide school lunches. Instead, test results are going up in all grades since we started the school lunch program.”

Benin lunch ladies prepare a meal for students. (Photo courtesy of WFP)

A 2019 study – the longest and largest study on this topic to date – showed an 18 percent improvement in reading tests for students who ate lunch.

“Every day, parents thank me,” Dahkindji said. “But I’m also grateful for them. We have a school garden, and parents send in spices and condiments, as well as wood so we can heat the food. We do this together.”

Though the GCNF conference is held once a year, Kessler noted many participants have formed informal alliances so they can reach out to one another as needed to discuss arising issues—one reason the annual sessions are so impactful.

  • (Photo courtesy of WFP)

“During the Forum, most governments reported they were able to maintain or increase school feeding coverage between 2019 and 2022, despite unprecedented emergencies and the intersection of multiple crises,” Kessler said.

“This response demonstrates the astounding resiliency of school feeding programs in the face of global crises. The Forum is the time when they come together to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what still needs to be done.”