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6 September 2023

The power of school meals to sustain food systems transformation

Laos: Nutritious meals are bringing more children to school

Volunteers from the community cook traditional Lao recipes with more nutritious ingredients to ensure that the children eat healthier meals. Lao PDR. Photo: Bart Verweij / World Bank

Two years after the Food Systems Summit, the UN Secretary-General convened the UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment (UNFSS+2), which gathered almost 2000 participants in person from 161 countries, to assess the advancements made in food systems transformation and escalate global action towards zero hunger, food security and nutrition (SDG 2). This first global follow-up confirms the commitment to urgently act to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The planetary crisis is exacerbating malnutrition, particularly in children and the nutrition situation continues to deteriorate. The lack of access to essential nutrition services puts children’s survival, growth, and development at risk. Therefore, school meal programmes can help safeguard children from starvation, as evidenced during the opening session of the U.N. Food Systems Summit.

In a multiple-crisis context, the School Meals Coalition session witnessed the endeavours of governments to improve their children’s well-being and transform food systems by using school meal programmes. The session highlighted concrete governmental actions and outcomes so that governments can inspire each other through successful examples.

Therefore, it is important to disentangle how countries can contribute to healthier diets for children while supporting food systems transformation. What type of initiatives have countries undertaken? What was the degree of success?

A current situation harming children

Children are being disproportionately affected by the challenges faced by global food systems. As such, in low- and middle-income countries, over half of young women are affected by micronutrient deficiency. With 153 million children suffering from food insecurity, it represents almost 50% of all people affected. Additionally, illiteracy rates among 10-year-olds are around 70% and approximately 73 million children go to school hungry. Shocks are exacerbated by unexpected events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which left 370 million schoolchildren without access to one daily meal when schools closed in April 2020. Fortunately, school meal programmes were a cornerstone to bounce back from the pandemic where 418 million children are now benefiting from school meals worldwide.

Paradoxically, children are deeply struck and left behind, considering the importance they hold in the current and future society.

“School feeding is a multi-sector programme, believe me, it is much more than a hot meal for a child in a school. In the case of Africa, when you feed a child, you feed the mother, when you feed the mother, you feed the family, when you feed the family, you feed the community. So, let’s go and see the potential of school feeding.” – Cristina Duarte, Under Secretary General and Special Adviser on Africa.

To curb this harmful trend and ensure the growth, learning and well-being of as many children as possible, countries came together in 2021 to form the School Meal Coalition. This Coalition has now grown to include 87 members committed to supporting school meal initiatives.

Outcomes and actions led by countries

School Meals Programmes can transform lives and communities and serve as platforms for improving education and food systems globally. Numerous governments share the goal of providing every child with a healthy and nutritious meal at school by 2030 as part of sustainable food systems.

In Sierra Leone, in 2018, the government launched a National School feeding programme targeting over 250,000 children. Nowadays, this programme includes more than 800,000 children nationwide. The government covers 80% of the cost of the programme and it resulted in positive impacts such as boosting school attendance and enrolment and reducing stunting, outlined Julius Maada Bio, President of Sierra Leone.

Nepal, Niger and Bangladesh have all seen similar positive impacts from implementing school feeding programmes. In Niger, the rate of school dropout of young girls in school with meals is 4.5 times less than in schools that do not offer feeding. Moreover, every dollar invested in school feeding generates 6.7 dollars in economic return, stated Mahamadou Ouhoumoudou, Prime Minister of Niger. In Bangladesh, providing a school feeding programme increased enrolment by 14% and reduced the dropout rate by more than 7.5%, as shared by A. K. Abdul Momen, Foreign Minister, People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

School meal programmes provide equal access to food for both girls and boys, which helps to reduce the gender gap. This ensures that girls and boys can equally focus on their studies and become food secure. Such programmes also contribute to ensuring decent physical, mental and reproductive health development which will benefit them and their offspring for their entire life, expressed Chrysula Zacharopoulou, Minister of State for Development of France, and Cem Özdemir, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture of Germany.

“School meals are not a cost, it is one of the best investments a country can make.” – Roy Steiner, Rockefeller Foundation.

To improve the School Meal Coalition, Jaana Husu-Kallio, Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Finland, expressed the need to continue mobilising Member States and non-state actors, upholding the focus on strategic partnerships and events at the regional level, strengthening the peer-to-peer learning, data and monitoring initiative, youth engagement, gender equality and guidance for the involvement of interested private sector.

According to Gaspard Twagirayezu, Minister of Education of Rwanda, the country implemented a national-level school feeding committee that involves different partners, including the Ministry of Education and Agriculture since school feeding is a multisectoral business.

Sweden’s Contribution to the School Meals Coalition

“Many countries around the world provide school lunches, but Sweden is unique in offering them for free.” – Livsmedelsverket.

As such, in Sweden, school lunches are provided free of charge to all students ages 6 to 16 and most students ages 16 to 19, five days a week regardless of parental income or school form. Sweden believes that school meals result in multiple benefits such as student health, social well-being, ability to learn and reducing socio-economic differences in health. Local taxes fund the cost of these meals.

1,3 million school meals are daily served in Sweden, representing 260 million meals each year. Additionally, meals are hot and several alternatives such as vegetarian and gluten-free are proposed. Since 2011, the Swedish School Law has mentioned that school meals must be nutritious. In 2015, the national guidelines for school meals were released and reviewed in 2019 by the Swedish Food Agency grounded on the Nordic Nutrition recommendations. This revision used a holistic approach called the “meal model” emphasising six aspects namely 1) tasty, 2) safe, 3) nutritious, 4) eco-smart, 5) pleasant and 6) integrated as part of the education.

As part of this model, pupils and students are educated in food and nutrition to raise youth awareness of all benefits that may stem from food for humans, animals and the planet.

All in all, school meals result in multiple benefits:

  • Food security for children and gender equality
  • Increase in the number of educated individuals through higher school attendance and enrolment and lower school dropout resulting in a valuable economic return
  • Job creation to provide these meals throughout the food supply chain.

Food system transformation into more sustainable, nutritious, local, resilient and healthier food systems

To finish, although a multi-sectoral initiative, governments account for one of the key players in fostering the development of school meal programmes.


Written by David Mingasson, SIANI reporter