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A new school of thought on school feeding programs for food-systems transformation


In 2019, over 65 million children across Africa received school meals, an impressive 71% increase from 2013. When schools across the world were closed in 2020, the loss of school meals became one of the hidden costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following multiple global crises that have exposed the fragility of our food systems, the expansion of school feeding initiatives has now been identified as a critical component of building more resilient and nutritious food systems for all.

Today, over a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s children are deprived of nutritious foods, with malnutrition remaining a critical issue. Further expansion of school feeding programs could thus benefit millions of children by providing them with regular access to wholesome, nourishing foods.

“School feeding programs support vulnerable pupils who cannot afford a healthy diet,” said Phyllis Addo, public health nutrition lecturer at the Fred N. Binka School of Public Health in Ghana and country project manager for an Africa-wide project on school feeding. This social-protection intervention ensures that school children receive at least one nutritious meal a day. In addition, it has been linked to improvements in school attendance, nutritional status and academic performance.

These programs would also leverage the power of public procurement to support local agriculture and food systems, further enabling food security. Homegrown school feeding models across the world, particularly in Africa, have demonstrated how such programs can positively transform the food system for the better. A white paper on food systems and school meals presented at the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change showed that feeding programs are uniquely placed to make food systems more resilient, equitable, sustainable and context-sensitive.

Numerous school feeding initiatives exist across sub-Saharan Africa, but unfortunately many fail to reach their full potential. Data shows that the quality of current school meals simply isn’t good enough. In addition, even though communities have an abundance of nutrient-rich, climate-smart foods, they are woefully underutilized in these programs.

Despite its clear benefits, policymakers often overlook school feeding when shaping broader agendas to address their food systems. Yet these initiatives hold immense power to drive wider transformative changes for healthier and more sustainable food systems.

The school feeding project, part of the Catalyzing Change for Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems (CCHeFS) initiative, is working to generate national evidence and promote changes in related food-systems policy and practice in Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Nigeria. The research teams are collaborating to come up with a continental roadmap that is sustainable and resilient. Project results will also contribute to the international Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition, the research initiative of the School Meals Coalition, established at the request of its more than 80 member states to provide policymakers with access to independent, robust, compelling and actionable evidence on school health and nutrition, thus enabling them to develop well-informed national programs.

The importance of enhancing school feeding policies

To improve school feeding policies, the environmental benefits of the programs need to be better understood. It is essential to increase policymakers’ knowledge about the relationship between school feeding, agriculture and climate resilience. Policies must link agriculture and climate to ensure farmers know what to produce, and under what climatic conditions, for healthy meals in schools.

Fortunately, policymakers and other stakeholders are keen to support the improvement of school feeding policies. “They are really anxious to see our results,” said Simon Omondi, who is part of the CCHeFS school feeding project. Some policymakers have suggested further areas for investigation, such as the cost of producing healthy school meals in light of increased inflation and reduced funding. “There may need to be a trade-off between meeting hunger and nutritional needs. In this instance, what substitutions can be made?” stated Samrat Singh, head of programs at the School of Public Health, Imperial College London, and chair of the diet-and-food-systems arm of the research consortium.

Empowering the local food community

The CCHeFS school feeding project is turning to local producers to enhance the quality of school meals. It aims to economically empower the local food community. Hence, it is prioritizing enhancing the connection between local farmers, suppliers and schools. “There has been a huge gap in food supply,” said Addo. “Homegrown meals and food supply should come from the local food systems,” she added.

The project also wants to ensure greater gender equity, so women farmers and agricultural processors in particular are being empowered and organized. School feeding can be improved by helping women take charge of food production and processing and thereby become major suppliers or food caterers.

The CCHeFS team in Ghana is also training school feeding caterers on meal planning, nutrition and food safety. The team is exploring the sustainability and cost effectiveness of processing innovations, such as the paddle-to-empower technology. Similar to a bicycle with an in-built mill, this device can be used to produce powdered mushroom – a beneficial protein source. It’s also enhancing community engagement in food systems and school feeding.  

A woman rides a paddle-to-empower bike, a group of on-lookers stand behind her.
University of Health and Allied Sciences, School of Public Health, Ghana (2023)
The paddle-to-empower bike, a sustainable technology to enhance food processing for more nutritious school meals, in use in Ghana.

Taking the next steps

Evidence generated from the CCHeFS school feeding project will be used to inform policymakers on how school feeding, food-systems transformation and climate change are inextricably linked.

It will also act as the foundation for recommended policy changes. The data will support the creation of the continental roadmap. This policy tool will support governments in devising and implementing consistent school feeding programs that enhance health outcomes and catalyze more equitable and sustainable food systems.

Given the increasingly important role of school feeding programs as a driver of food- systems transformation, the CCHeFS initiative, a partnership between IDRC and the Rockefeller Foundation, is now enhancing its support to countries and projects that focus on this critical area of work. Find out more about its work on school meals in a thematic brief.

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