2019 Blog – If you still think school meals are just about the food, then you haven’t been paying attention. Professor Donald A.P. Bundy, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

2019 Blog – If you still think school meals are just about the food, then you haven’t been paying attention. Professor Donald A.P. Bundy, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Since the last International School Meals Day there has been a sea-change in the way that the world thinks about school feeding.

In 2018, the third edition of Disease Control Priorities (www.DCP-3.org), led by the World Bank with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provided new insights into the return on investing in people. Volume 8, in particular focused on Child and Adolescent Health and Development. While confirming the crucial importance of good health in the first 1000 days of development, it also showed that investment needs to continue into the early 20s (i.e. over the next 7000 days) if the early gains are to be secured and if development is to be sustained during the subsequent phases of pre-puberty, puberty and adolescent brain development. The analysis also highlights the major mismatch in current investment in people, with most investment in health before 5 years of age, and most investment in education between 5 and 19 years. School feeding, for school age children and adolescents, is identified as part of an essential package that can help fix this.

Also in 2018, the World Bank launched a “Human Capital Index” to help countries monitor their investment in people. The first results of the index show that in rich countries some 70% of the nation’s wealth is produced by its people. In poor countries, by contrast, this proportion is nearer 40%, perhaps showing that poor countries tend to undervalue the potential return on their populations, and also suggesting that children growing up in poor countries just don’t get the opportunity to achieve their full potential as adults. Learning and education are key areas of under-performance in low-income countries, but even where education is strong there needs to be concomitant investment in the health and nutrition of the learner through school health and school feeding programmes.

School feeding and school health are important Human Capital investments for all children, but they are a game changer for girls in low income countries. This was the conclusion of a recent op-ed in the Canadian Foreign Affairs journal “Policy Options Politique”, which I worked on with Carmen Burbano (http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/november-2018/school-meal-programs-game-changer/). Carmen directs the World Food Programme’s new global effort, launched in 2018, to harness the energy behind the new school feeding agenda, and to bring those benefits to 73 million of the most disadvantaged children.

For me, the most memorable statistic on the potential of girls’ education came from a recent World Bank report, Missed Opportunities: The High Cost of Not Educating Girls, which was launched in partnership with the Malala Fund in 2018. This shows that women and girls could add up to $30 trillion to the global economy if all girls completed secondary school, a key goal of the education SDG. Ensuring the availability of universal secondary education would provide the opportunity, and school feeding’s exceptional record for encouraging girls into secondary school could do the rest.

The evidence for the cost-effectiveness of school feeding and school health as investments in Human Capital and Social Safety Nets is compelling, and we are now seeing similarly strong evidence emerging for a role in stimulating local economies. Nigeria invested in creating a “cash-free” and “home-grown” school feeding programme for some 1.5 million children in Osun State, and then from 2015 replicated this model so that today nearly 10 million children are fed daily in 22 States, and counting. This has had an impact on the local agricultural markets; the Federal Government’s Social Investment Programme, working with technical advice from the Partnership for Child Development, has shown that local farmers every week supply more than 6.8 million eggs and 75 tonnes of farmed fish to schools, and only poultry enterprise that first supplied only schools, is now the major supplier to a big-name “fast-chicken” franchise nationally.  Intriguingly, well-designed school feeding programmes do not only stimulate agricultural markets; some 95,000 women are now self-employed as licensed and trained caterers, with predictable jobs providing meals in schools, and opportunities for entrepreneurship catering to the wider community.

So 2018 has been a year of remarkable change in how the world thinks and acts around school feeding. National decision makers have strengthened Human Capital Development through a focus on the productive interaction between health and education, and on girls’ education, and also given greater emphasis to the social protection and local economic benefits. Internationally, there is major new energy, including from the World Bank and the World Food Programme.

The world of school feeding and school health has changed dramatically over the last year. What might 2019 bring? One hope is that G7 countries will recognize school feeding as an essential tool to address the priorities that have been set for this year: inequalities, education, gender and the Sahel.

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