Well-balanced school meals are a promising starting point for a sustainable improvement in the nutritional situation of the entire population. School meal programs play an important political role in many countries around the world and are increasingly being adopted by governments and increasingly incorporated into national strategies and policies. The importance of school catering is increasing worldwide, especially in the context of sustainability.
Facts and figures on school meals programmes worldwide
The World Food Programme (WFP) is the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world's largest humanitarian organization. The WFP runs school feeding programs primarily in low- and middle-income countries and provides complementary support for national school feeding programmes in politically stable countries that have established their own state-run programmes. The school feeding strategy, initiated by the WFP for the decade 2020 to 2030, aims to ensure good health and nutrition for every schoolchild through an integrated and multisectoral approach (7). Prior to the start of the Covid-19 crisis, one in every two primary schoolchildren received daily school meals in at least 161 countries (equivalent to 388 million children) (12). At a global scale, an estimated 39 billion in-school meals were missed as a result of school closures due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 (14). For millions of vulnerable children, the distribution of school meals secures a major component of their daily diet. The loss of a vital source of food highlighted the importance of school feeding as a social safety net as it protects the well-being of children and supports their future (12).
Coverage of school feeding programmes: wide disparities countries
Between 2013 and 2020, the number of children receiving school meals grew by 9 percent worldwide. Low income-countries have considerably strengthened their financial and policy efforts in relation to school feeding which led to an increase by 36 percent of schoolchildren receiving meals (12). The figures show the change in coverage by country income classifications and by region between 2013 and 2020.
Coverage is defined by the WFP as the proportion of school-attending children who benefit from a school feeding programme. Wide disparities between countries can be seen.
School Feeding Programmes
Providing assistance through school feeding programmes, especially in low-income countries, is essential to household food security and has the potential to promote education, health and nutrition (3, 4). While programmes in high- and middle-income countries are almost exclusively financed by domestic resources (taxes and other sources), programmes in low-income countries rely largely on donor support, such as the WFP (12). Over the last decade, various countries have established a government-owned school food programme or are transitioning from an externally supported programme in the short or medium term (23). Other countries are keen to set up or re-establish effective school feeding programmes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (12). In the context of the school feeding strategy 2020-2030, WFP in cooperation with partners and governments aims to ensure that all primary schoolchildren have access to good quality meals in school, accompanied by a broader integrated package of health and nutrition services. With the School Feeding Strategy 2020-2030, WFP sets out its vision to work with governments and partners to jointly ensure that all elementary school children have access to high quality meals in school. This is to be accompanied by a more comprehensive integrated package of health and nutrition services (7).
Vaccination programs or health checks are important interventions to accompany school meal programmes (7). Four in 5 countries worldwide have a school feeding policy (12). Governments have a keen interest in complementing the provision of school meals with other school-based measures (e. g. promotion of hand-washing with soap before meals, de-worming treatments, nutrition education, agricultural diversification, improved water and sanitation facilities, and micronutrient supplementation) in order to achieve long-term results (25). Fewer than seven percent of governments implement school feeding exclusively on food; all other countries combine school feeding with additional health and nutrition interventions (12). On the African continent, the national school feeding programmes intend to contribute to improved access to education and higher performance (21). Various studies show that school health and nutrition programs lead to improved educational outcomes (22).
In high income countries, the focus is on the quality of school meals (4, 8). School meal programmes are primarily associated with health promotion, nutrition education and sustainability aspects. High-quality, free school meals are considered a central approach to creating fair and sustainable food environments (4). In a survey conducted between 2016-2017 by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 142 out of 160 WHO member states (89%) implement some sort of school health and nutrition programme (20). In the WHO regions of the Americas, Europe and the Western Pacific, these programmes aim at reduce or prevent overweight and obesity. On the contrary, in the WHO regions of Africa and Southeast Asia, the prevention of undernutrition is at the centre of these efforts.
National dietary guidelines and school feeding standards
A total of 119 countries in the six WHO regions reported to have national dietary guidelines (20). Nutrition standards are important instruments for ensuring nutritional quality and differ in food-based dietary guidelines and nutrient-based Standards. Food-based dietary guidelines are common in all WHO regions, but less frequently found in the WHO African Region. Specific dietary guidelines for different population groups (e.g. preschool-age children, school-age children) make them more suitable, effective to communicate and put into practice. Trained nutritionists and dieticians are responsible for planning school meals in 49 % of the countries.
In Europe, all 27 EU member states plus the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland have national school food policies in place. The policies are mandatory in half of the countries and voluntary in the other half. Food-based standards are also the most common in European countries: > 90 % employ food-based standards to ensure balanced menus; this is followed by portion size guidance (76 %) and nutrient-based standards for lunch (68 %) (1).
Funding of school meal programmes
School meals in low- and middle-income countries are usually non-contributory, as they are funded by development organizations such as the WFP or the public sector (4, 8, 12). In middle-income countries, it is primarily the former emerging countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) that mostly subsidize school meals. These five countries account for nearly half of all children receiving school meals globally (12). In general, school meals are not free of charge in high-income countries. In European countries, the funding modalities differ between free school meals for everyone, government support and parents‘ contributions. Often there are income-related support programs (e.g. the education and participation package in Germany). Free school meals are served in Finland and Sweden (4).
Since the economic status of a country has an impact on the structure and quality of school meal programmes, selected country cases are presented below. The World Bank classifies the world’s economies into four income categories: low, lower-middle, upper-middle, and high income countries.
- European Union
The European member states largely agree on the most important objectives of balanced school meals. All countries have passed school food policies, recognising the great importance of school meals for a healthy development of children and adolescents.
A summary is listed here.
Free-of-charge school meals have been provided in Finland for more than 70 years. In the country of 5.5 million inhabitants, around 830,000 schoolchildren receive a well-balanced meal daily.
More information here.
In Sweden, national efforts to provide free schools meals started in the early 20th century, and comprised the majority of schoolchildren since the 1970s.
An overview of the swedish school food policy here.
Three-course meals and long breaks: French students should be able to enjoy their school meals. This is also expressly mentioned in the standards.
Here an overview, how France organize it´s school food programme.
- United Kingdom
In the UK, compliance with the School Food Standards to ensure high quality school meals is mandatory for all maintained schools. The increasing number of overweight and obese children triggered a nationwide discussion on the quality of school meals.
More information here.
Upper-middle income countries
In Brazil, 40 million children receive school meals through the National School Feeding Programme (Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar, PNAE) which is a public policy initiative and the second largest school meals programme in the world. With an annual budget equivalent to US$ 764 million, the PNAE reaches more than 160,000 schools in 5,570 municipalities. The greatest strength lies in its legal and institutional assurances as the programme is regulated by a federal law that ensures public school students the universal right to free school meals. (12)
The menu planning is carried out by nutritionists, respecting local eating habits and food traditions. The meals must offer at least 20% and up to 70% of the children's daily nutritional needs, based on mandatory nutrition guidelines for school feeding. The programme explicitly includes the promotion of healthy eating habits among children and their families. This is ensured by integrating nutrition education into the school curriculum. The programme is implemented by the National Fund for Educational Development (Fundo Nacional de Desenvolvimento da Educação, FNDE), an independent body within the Ministry of Education. The programme was decentralized in 1994, hence the states and municipalities are responsible for the management and implementation. The enactment of the School Feeding Law No. 11.947 of 2009 created a legal framework for the school feeding programme, which institutionalized the nutrition policy of public schools and established guidelines (23). Additionally, the link to family farming has been consolidated in a mandatory purchase of at least 30 % from smallholder farmers. (12)
Monitoring and evaluation is mainly carried out by FNDE technical staff and the School Feeding Council (CAE) (e.g. parents, students, teachers, nutritionists, school board members) at the national level or municipalities to ensure the effectiveness of the PNAE. The government created two digital tools for standardized data collection. Interested citizens may also use this app to receive information on a particular school of their choice including school budgets and nutrition recommendations. (12)
Lebanon may be officially classed as an upper middle-income country, but has been hit particularly hard by crises. For instance, Lebanon has the largest per capita population of Syrian refugees in the world (24). The presence of an estimated 1.5 million displaced Syrians increased the demand on infrastructure and basic services, aggravating the vulnerability of the underprivileged.
Political instability, social tensions as well as the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbate the crisis for the Lebanese population. The economic power is falling, whilst the share of vulnerable population groups is growing due to poverty, which overall increases the social gap and crisis in the country. This mainly affects both Lebanese and Syrian children. In the context of this emergency situation, the WFP commissioned an evaluation of the school feeding programme to gain knowledge about school feeding in a fragile state. (12)
The evaluation concluded that the Lebanese school feeding programme resulted in an improved dietary diversity, food security and short-term hunger period. Moreover, the design of the programme appropriately addressed the different needs of Lebanese and Syrian refugee children and took into account the differences and similarities between the two population groups. It became evident that the programme had a greater effect on food security for Syrian children where levels of food insecurity were generally higher. (12)
Lower-middle income countries
In the 1980s, the Ministry of Education, with the support of the WFP, established a school meals programme, mainly to target schoolchildren in areas most severely affected by food insecurity. The process of transition from a WFP-supported regular school feeding programme to government ownership and implementation started in 2009 and was completed in 2018. The Government of Kenya-led Home Grown School Meals (HGSM) Programme is a comprehensive approach linking school feeding with local food production and thereby supporting and promoting smallholder farmers. (12, 13)
The programme receives financial and in-kind contributions from the childrens’ families and local farmers procure food (15). In 2020, the government’s programme, guided by the National School Meals and Nutrition Strategy (2017-2022), reached more than 1.6 million children in arid and semi-arid regions of the country (approximately 12% of school-age children). This corresponds to a four-fold increase in the number of children reached compared to the school meals programme implemented by the WFP. This case illustrates how government commitment can transform an externally supported programme into full federal funding and national ownership (12) Overall, there is a strong connection with the local agriculture and community in Kenya and women in particular are involved in preparing school meals. Nevertheless, there are challenges, e.g. due to the lack of availability of local food due to seasonal aridity (15).
The WFP-supported school feeding progamme started in 2001 and is currently in a transition phase from an externally supported programme towards full government ownership (12) The National School Meal Policy (NSMP) was launched in 2019 and aims to provide all students in public primary schools with locally produced meals by 2024 with technical assistance from the WFP. It is expected that the number of children participating in the programme will already increase during the transition phase. A total of around 18 million children attend primary school (as of 2018). (16)
The school lunch provided should improve in quality (change from fortified biscuits to well-balanced hot meals). The government currently allocates US$ 75 million a year. Once completed, the annual cost is estimated at around US $ 910 million. (12)
Low income countries
Although there is no national school feeding programme in Afghanistan, the National Public Nutrition Policy and Strategy (2015-2020) focuses on the provision of school meals as a field of intervention and strives for stronger cross-sectoral cooperation between the health and education ministries. Decades of war, social unrest and recurring natural disasters have led to widespread poverty and food insecurity in the country. School-based interventions particularly focus on girls and women to create incentives for their school attendance.
Other interventions include children from remote areas who cannot go to school during the harsh winter months. In recent years, the WFP has shifted the focus of its activities from emergency aid to restoring livelihoods. The WFP provides school meals and advises the national government. Around 1.34 million children are provided with school meals. (12, 13)
Around 20% of primary school children are reached with school meals in Benin (12). The school infrastructure in the West African country is comparatively poor: only a few schools have electricity, running water, drinking water, sanitary facilities, cafeterias or equipped kitchens (17). The WFP has been supporting Benin, which is severely affected by food insecurity, with school feeding programmes since 1975. In the school year2019/2020, daily school meals were offered to around 630,000 children. (18)
Since 2014, several milestones to improve school nutrition have been implemented, such as the transfer of the WFP-initiated program for school nutrition to the country's own responsibility since 2010, the introduction of the National school nutrition policy in 2014 (Politique Nationale de L'Alimentation Scolaire, PNAS) or the participation in several international round tables (including Global Child Nutrition Forum) to exchange experiences for strengthening the programme (17). The objectives of the school meals programme focus on reducing poverty and hunger, increasing the overall school attendance rate and, above all, girls, and on linking school feeding with other health interventions (e.g. hygiene). (18)
School meals and child health
Food security, educational participation, gender equality
The WFP states that there has been a worldwide consensus over the last ten years that school feeding programmes have a lasting impact on the future of a country (6). In developing countries in particular, the opportunity to eat one or more meals a day at school is an incentive for children, especially girls, to attend school and thus to experience education and participation. School meals thus also contribute to gender equality. Numerous studies have shown that the nutrient supply of children in low-income countries has significantly improved by school feeding programmes and consequently have a positive effect on their health status (6). The same effect can be seen in today's high-income countries, which in past economically weak times promoted school meals with the aim of avoiding food insecurity. (8)
Prevention of obesity, nutrition education
In middle- and high-income countries, the focus in recent years has tended to shift towards preventing overweight and obesity in children. Initiatives to improve school meals increasingly aim at encouraging healthy eating habits (8). Therefore, school food standards are becoming an integral part of the political agenda. While countries such as Finland and France released food quality standards for school meals since the 1970s, the UK has been committed to corresponding requirements for school meals since 2000 and the USA since 2010 (8). In Germany, quality standards for school meals have been in place on a voluntary basis since 2007; in some federal states they are mandatory.
Monitoring und Evaluation
Although school meals can have a strong influence on children’s intake of calories and important nutrients, there is little evidence from high-income countries that school meals and school food policies significantly improve children´s and subsequently adults' physical health status or eating habits (8). It has been proven that optimally balanced school meals have a positive influence on the energy supply and on the needs-based consumption of important micro- and macronutrients in children. However, there is a lack of studies that show direct connections between school meal compositions and an improvement in certain health indicators in children. (8)
Sustainable school meals programmes
Many national school meal programmes around the world are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (9). They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand in hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality and stimulate economic growth – while combating climate change and preserving our oceans and forests. (10).
Initiatives in high-income countries
Initiatives from Portugal, Spain, England and the USA show that the establishment of community kitchens with solid partnerships between agricultural producers and schools strengthens the regional value chain, enables organic farming, animal welfare and social standards (e.g. fair pricing, long-term employment) (9). Local school food initiatives also make the origin of food transparent to children in many ways (e.g. school gardens or farm-to-school programs) and are therefore have an impact on nutrition education.
Initiatives in low- and middle-income countries
School meal programmes in low-income countries have demonstrated to have far-reaching effects on the region and on social participation through local food production (6). Women in particular benefit from appropriate employment in agriculture or in school kitchens. UNESCO describes national school meal programmes as the most effective interventions to prevent gender inequality in accordance with the SDGs and to create gender equality in education (12, 19). Especially in low-income countries, SDG 2 “Zero Hunger” has high priority in the development of nutritional interventions (12).
Education for Sustainable Development
Food production and consumption have a major impact on climate protection and resource conservation. The interrelationships between global animal husbandry, meat production and fisheries are complex and require a comprehensive understanding of the global effects of nutrition behaviour. In the sense of education for sustainable development, schools can motivate and enable children and adolescents to think and act in a sustainable and future-oriented way. School meal programmes bring the value of education into focus, including more sustainable meals; they convey values and norms for responsible and health-conscious consumption and help children familiarize themselves with the food culture of their country (8).
The sustainable procurement of school meals plays a central role. The effects that school meals have on water consumption, the use of pesticides and fertilizers or on regional economic development becomes clear against the background of more than 388 million children around the world who eat at school (12). School catering is therefore seen as a strong driving force for a change towards more sustainability in local and global food production.
Sustainable food policies
In her lecture at the 4th German Federal Centre for Nutrition (BZfE) Forum in September 2020, Prof. Ulrike Arens-Azevedo presented how national school meal programmes contribute to a nutrition system that is more sustainable and health-promoting. She is the spokesperson for the Working Group on communal catering (Gemeinschaftsverpflegung) of the German Nutrition Society and, as an expert on the Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy, Food and Consumer Health Protection of the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), was involved in the preparation of the report "Promoting more sustainable food consumption. Developing an integrated food policy and creating fair food environment" (4).
A global perspective
The long-term use of school meal programmes in countries of all income groups has over time also led to the establishment of global nutrition initiatives by various organizations, most of which were piloted and evaluated in several countries. In addition, numerous regional networks have been created that operate across national borders and benefit from mutual exchange under comparable conditions and in similar contexts. With an integrated, multisectoral approach, school meal programmes have a high potential to contribute to the healthy development of children. The actions and objectives of school health and nutrition programmes are different and depend on the economic and political situation of a country. Schools as a system offer children far more than education and knowledge. The school environment has an influence on the provision of school meals for the children, their individual health and has an impact on the families.
Investments in school nutrition programs are long-term investments in more sustainable nutrition environments that have a positive impact on the school environment. Overall, a return on investment, meaning the ratio of benefits to costs, can range from at least 7: 1 to 9: 1 (12). This shows that school feeding programmes can be cost-effective from a cross-sectoral perspective due to the positive influence on education and participation, gender equality, health, social security, local economic systems, agriculture etc. (4, 6, 7, 12).
Different focus in the countries
The global comparison shows that school health and nutrition programmes focus either on preventing overweight and obesity or on combating undernutrition and food insecurity, depending on the economic situation of a country. The programmes are therefore “double duty actions” as they can address both forms malnutrition (20).
School feeding as a social safety net
School feeding is the largest and most widespread social safety net to protect the well-being of the most vulnerable children (25). The Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the importance of educational institutions in the food system. Protracted school closures precipitate a large education crisis and restrict access to crucial health programmes, social integration or emergency measures usually placed on the school premises. Disadvantaged and socially vulnerable children are particularly affected in all countries worldwide.
- European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) (2014): JRC Science and Policy Reports. Mapping of National School Food Policies across the EU28 plus Norway and Switzerland
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- Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik, Ernährung und gesundheitlichen Verbraucherschutz (WBAE) beim Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (BMEL) (2020): Politik für eine nachhaltigere Ernährung. Eine integrierte Ernährungspolitik entwickeln und faire Ernährungsumgebungen gestalten - Gutachten.
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