By the FAO nutrition team: Boitshepo Glyose, Andrea PoloGalante, Diana Carter, Ana Islas Ramos and Marie Caroline Dode.
In line with the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), the Zero Hunger Challenge and the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025), FAO recognizes school children as a priority for nutrition interventions and acknowledged the school environment as an opportune platform for a nutrition sensitive approach.
School children need a healthy School Meals to develop and grow well
Many children enter school suffering from stunting, underweight and multiple micronutrient deficiencies, especially among low-income populations. However, in the recent past, a significant number is entering school overweight or obese. Therefore, providing nutritionally balanced school meals combined with nutrition education and health measures can improve nutritional outcomes, improve nutrition literacy and eventually enhance school performance. In the long run, this would improve employment prospects, income and promote better livelihoods in later life.
The impact of school meals on the nutrition of school-aged children is improved when these meals incorporate nutrition sensitive efforts such as diverse production and use of food based dietary guidelines to improve their quality and diversity. Naturally, this has to take into account regional, national and local contexts where the school meals programmes are implemented. The contribution of the school meals programmes to improve eating habits and consequently better nutrition can be enhanced when it is associated with nutrition-sensitive elements such as the incorporation of high quality nutritious foods into the daily menus, and linking school meals with food and nutrition education.
FAO’s role: What it means in practice
FAO supports national governments to design policies, programmes and projects on school food and nutrition with a comprehensive approach that places emphasis on a food systems approach with a nutrition lens.
To add nutrition sensitive lens into school meals FAO considers 3 key areas:
Creation of enabling environments: The multifaceted nature of the core components of School Food and Nutrition requires a policy and programme approach that is multisectoral and takes cognizance of the need to develop and adopt a conducive legal, regulatory and institutional enabling environment. Countries may for instance need to establish explicit policies that link school meals programmes to local and smallholder production and procurement, food and nutrition consumer education for healthier and more sustainable diets.
Promotion of better nutrition: school meals linked with food and nutrition education encompass a set of rules, principles or recommendations, based on the latest nutrition science and evidence and the context of each school system, on the nutritional quality and quantity, preparation, and safety of foods and drinks offered in schools. Food and nutrition education in the school setting aims to facilitate guidance and voluntary adoption of long-lasting, healthy food-related outlooks, practices and habits that promote better health, well-being and productivity.
Community Development: This entails building direct links between schools’ demand for safe, diverse and nutritious local products; and available supply from smallholder farmers at local or national levels to stimulate the local economy and foster community involvement and sustainable development. This link can therefore effectively augment the impact of regular school meals programmes with economic benefits for local communities particularly smallholder farmers and small scale enterprises managed by youth and women, while fostering effective and symbiotic public private partnerships.
Connecting nutrition-sensitive agriculture to school menus: Armenia experience
To promote a diversified food into schools menus, the Armenian government is highlighting the importance of connecting the agriculture sector to national school meals programme.
This national programme plays a vital safety net for vulnerable populations, which acts as an effective mechanism to reduce the pressure of families to resort to negative coping strategies, such as withdrawing children from school. Currently 81,500 children receive every day nutritious and healthy meals that are balanced in calories, vitamins, and minerals.
The cooperation with FAO also includes support to connect school meals programme, agriculture productivity, markets and local procurement. FAO has played an active role in supporting Armenia’s national development plans and emergency projects aimed at increasing agricultural productivity and improving the country’s food security over 20 years. It has provided technical assistance ranging from developments in the agriculture sector to fighting transboundary animal diseases, natural resources management, land administration and forestry and fisheries interventions. All these eventually contribute to the national school meals programmes.