In a first of its kind report, the Global Child Nutrition Foundation’s (GCNF) Global Survey of School Meal Programs has provided a snapshot of the state of school meal programmes around the world. With results from 103 countries, 85 of which reported active large-scale school meal programmes, the survey shows that over 297 million children are benefiting from school meals.

While school meal programmes have long been recognized as a powerful social safety net to protect children from hunger and malnutrition, they have been gaining steady momentum as the evidence of their multifaceted benefits builds. Most notably is their impact on education. By providing a nourishing and reliable source of food, school meals encourage children to attend school and supports their learning to help them achieve their full potential. In fact, 93% of school meal programmes are guided by the objective to improve education and 88% to improve nutrition. By improving attendance, school meal programmes have also been found to promote gender equality and inclusion by increasing the attendance of girls and vulnerable children.

Promisingly, 76% of school meal programmes reported purchasing at least some school food locally. This finding was linked to a greater level of diversity in the meals served and reflects a global movement in the procurement of school meals. By using locally sourced foods, school meal programmes help to strengthen rural economies, creating reliable value chains for farmers as well as promoting environmental sustainability by shortening supply chains, encouraging biodiversity and the production of less resource intense local crops. With over $45 billion spent on school feeding programmes, and over 4 million jobs linked to their implementation, the movement towards locally sourced, or “home-grown”, school meal programmes create a powerful tool for inclusive economic growth and food systems transformation. This will certainly be a focus of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit with locally sourced school meal programmes pitched as a potentialgame-changing solution to improve the health and nutrition of children through a food systems transformation to deliver sustainable healthy diets.

The GCNF survey shows that the world is taking action to realise the broad potential of school meal programmes. Though there are many areas for improvement. While school meals offer a unique opportunity to act as a double duty action to tackle all forms of malnutrition, just 25% of programmes include objectives to tackle obesity. Despite the major advantages of school meal programmes support by legal frameworks, such as Brazil’s national programme which employs agricultural laws to mandate locally sourced produce, just one third of programmes report employing such laws. The continued ambiguity in dietary recommendations specific to children was also evident as a barrier in both the planning and evaluation of school meal programmes.

The GCNF survey goes a long way towards setting guiding principles for best practice in school meal programmes and will now serve as a baseline for measuring global and country level progress. New surveys will be conducted every two years with the upcoming 2021 survey set  to capture the unique time period when COVID-19 has threatened the social safety nets school meals provide. With the ever-expanding evidence base, it is hoped that home-grown school feeding programmes will soon be included in global targets and commitments as a mechanism to improve education, nutrition, health, gender equality, environmental sustainability and economic development, a powerful tool to realise SDG2 and beyond.

Get involved!

The full survey report, individual country profiles, and additional resources can now be found at the GCNF website along with more details on how you can get involved with the global movement to support locally sourced school meal programmes. Additionally, watch a pre-recorded conversation with GCNF Executive Director Arlene Mitchel, Lawrence Haddad and Miriam Shindler as they discuss the report’s key highlights.

Photo credit: GCNF/Anna Issakova 

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