The occasion of International School Meals Day leads to thoughts about who eats school meals, what they eat, and where they are.
As one of the lucky people who have had a chance to study and visit school meal programs all over the world, I can’t help but think of examples I’ve seen over the years, across five continents.
The vast network of farmers, transporters, cooks, servers, parents, children, and myriads of others who are involved — in some way — with students’ receiving food to eat at their schools also come to mind.
At the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) we are engaged in expanding and connecting this network of stakeholders and supporting sharing of their knowledge and experiences so that more children around the world can benefit from nutritious meals at school. We are conducting a Global Survey of School Meal Programs (https://gcnf.org/survey/) involving 150 countries right now that will allow participating governments to consider their investments in school nutrition and share successes and challenges within and beyond their own countries’ borders.
We are motivated to conduct the survey and continue to build the knowledge base because of what we’ve learned through examples such as the following.
INDIA: More than 100 million children have a meal at school each day in India alone. After varied prior experience with school meal programs, in November 2001, India’s supreme court decreed that the government should provide cooked midday meals for “every child in every Government and Government assisted Primary School…[consisting of] a minimum content of 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein each day of school for a minimum of 200 days [per year].” [i]
Think of that: 100 million children times an average of 10 grams of protein: 1 billion grams per day, for 200 days, or about 200,000 Metric Tons per year–of protein alone! (The program has evolved since 2001, so this is a conservative estimate. Primary students are now to receive 12 grams, and upper primary students 20 grams, of protein per day.) Imagine how many children have gotten much-needed protein via this program! And think of how many farmers, transporters, processors, and cooks are involved–especially when the grains and other products used in the Midday Meal Scheme are included.
BRAZIL: Under Brazil’s “Zero Hunger” campaign, purchasing 30 percent of the food for the country’s school meal program from small-scale family farms was seen as a way to spur agricultural development and help rural families as well as feed children at school. The program reaches between 40 and 50 million children each school day, has resulted in significantly more fruits, nuts, and vegetables in the school menus, and has been a factor in reducing child hunger, malnutrition, and poverty in the country since the campaign was introduced in 2003. [ii]
JAPAN: When I visited schools in Japan several years ago, I was impressed to see school children helping to serve and clean up from their school meals, simple but powerful nutrition messages accompanying the meals, and exceptionally hygienic kitchens. The meals were nutritious and tasty, too! Japan had a long history of school meals, but after World War II, they received needed international support for the program. When that support began to decline, parents advocated for government support to ensure that their children received meals at school, and in 1954, a national School Lunch Law was enacted. The program is consistently rated as one of the best in the world.[iii]
FINLAND: The Finnish National Board of Education says that school meals are an investment in learning. “A good lunch is something that gives pleasure, satisﬁes the need for nutrition, provides a balanced diet, maintains the ability to work, relaxes, refreshes and is safe. A good school meal is an investment in the future.” The Finnish government asserts that theirs was the first free school meal program in the world, noting that 1948 marked when free school catering took off at scale in Finland, although it had been offered on a smaller scale since about 1900.
Unfortunately, the coverage of school meal programs is weakest in the very places where the need is the greatest. According to “The State of School Feeding Worldwide” in 2013, in low-income countries, only about 18 percent of school children are provided school meals; 49 percent of school children receive food at school in upper-middle-income countries.[iv]
We wish you a very wonderful International School Meals Day and hope you will join us in telling the story of what an important and good investment school meal programs are!