Solution Cluster 2.1.3

School Meals Coalition - Nutrition, Health and Education for Every Child

In order to ensure that every child has the opportunity to grow, learn and thrive, a group of member states is forming an international Schools Meals Coalition. This coalition will help to address the COVID-19 pandemic by bringing together governments, United Nations agencies, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and academia to drive actions that can urgently re-establish, improve and scale-up school meals programmes in low, lower middle, upper middle and high income countries around the world.

Nutritious school meals are transformative. They are a proven game changer for food systems, the most vulnerable communities, and children in all countries of the world. These programmes help to combat child hunger, poverty and multiple forms of malnutrition. They attract children to school and support children’s nutrition, learning, long-term well-being and health. School meals can positively promote gender equity by supporting girls to attend and graduate from school, thereby reducing the risk of child marriage, early pregnancies and gender-based violence. In middle and low-income countries, every dollar invested in school meals yields 9 dollars back in social returns: healthy and educated children are more productive adults.

Children are not the only ones who benefit. School meals programmes can serve as springboards for food system transformation, while simultaneously improving the quality of education.  Where possible and depending on the national and local markets and food systems, locally grown food is a nutritious, healthy, and efficient way to provide school children with a daily meal while, at the same time, improving opportunities for smallholder farmers. Local catering businesses, many led by women, are also provided with business opportunities. Where it is possible, using local, indigenous foods can help conserve food culture and protect biodiversity. School meals programmes are opportunities to teach children how to eat better while learning about sustainable lifestyles and healthy diets. They serve as platforms enabling a more holistic approach to child well-being through the integration of education, health, and social protection. Well-nourished children are an important investment in the individual in order to learn, earn a living and contribute to society.

In countries in conflict or dealing with crises, school meal programmes can help stabilize communities and enhance resilience. They help restore a sense of normality and stability for the most vulnerable children. Helping to keep children in school protects them against physical abuse and other risks like forced or early child marriage and labour.

The evidence demonstrates that school meals do more than provide food. They are one of the most impactful and efficient interventions to support children and can contribute to the achievement of at least seven SDGs and to the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025).

The goal of the coalition is to ensure that every child has the opportunity to receive a healthy, nutritious meal in school by 2030. The aim is to improve the quality of school meals and strengthen school meal systems globally, in a manner which is tailored to local contexts and which promotes the sharing of international best practice. The School Meals Coalition will catalyze actions and share knowledge, thereby serving as a key driver of both pandemic recovery and achievement of the SDGs.

In order to attain its goals, the coalition of partners will endeavor to achieve the following:

  1. Restore what we had (by 2023): Support all countries to re-establish effective school meal programmes and repair what was lost during the pandemic.
  2. Reach those we missed (by 2030): Reach the most vulnerable, in low and lower middle-income countries, that were not being reached even before the pandemic. Increase the efficiency of programmes to enable low and lower-middle income countries to become more self-reliant.
  3. Improve our approach (by 2030): Improve the quality and efficiency of existing school meals programmes in all countries by facilitating a healthy food environment in schools and promoting safe, nutritious and sustainably produced food, linking to local production where appropriate. Ensure that nutrition-sensitive approaches are linked to nutrition education and other health interventions. Improvements should be based on existing evidence or be designed to fill possible evidence gaps.

About this Solution Cluster

In early 2020, school feeding programmes delivered more meals than ever before, to 388 million children, or one out of every two primary school children worldwide. This historic progress was the culmination of a decade of action by governments and their partners. For example, coverage was almost doubled in Africa, from reaching 38.4 million children in 2013 to 65.4 million in 2020. However, there was still work to be done. Even at the record numbers of children reached in early 2020, 73 million of the most vulnerable girls and boys in 60 lower-income and low-income countries still had no access to school meals.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought this decade of progress to a sudden halt. In April 2020, during the height of the crisis, almost all countries closed their schools, leaving 370 million school children without access to the one meal a day they could rely on. Between May and October of 2020, more than 70 countries tested various approaches to continue providing food to children even while schools were closed including through take-home rations, vouchers, cash transfers or a combination. These mitigation measures illustrate the value of the meals to children and their families and their safety net function during a crisis. But there is more work to be done: there are still about 150 million children missing school meals in 2021. Re-establishing school meals programmes and meeting the needs of those left behind has now become an urgent priority.

The School Meals Coalition already has broad support and wide membership. Over 40 member states are engaged in the design and development of the coalition, in addition to over 25 stakeholders from UN agencies, academia, multilateral organizations and others. School meals are also regional Food Systems Summit priorities for the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU). AU Heads of State passed a landmark decision in 2016 recognizing the contribution of school meals to inclusive development, health, gender equality, and education for the most vulnerable. In March 2021, the AU issued a communiqué calling for the creation of a School Meals Coalition at the Food Systems Summit, recognizing the need to restore and scale up programmes following the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Council meanwhile adopted three council conclusions in May and June 2021 which recognize the importance of school meals and nutrition as critical interventions to help children develop to their full potential.

The coalition will be broad, and government-led, in view of the responsibilities governments have to the health and education of their school children and the importance of national and local context to shaping effective programmes. However, rapid progress to ensure a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 will require action by all stakeholders, including ministries, local and municipal authorities, local communities and schools, international organizations, academia, civil society and the private sector.  

The coalition will focus specifically on overcoming identified bottlenecks and boosting actions that hold great potential for scaling progress and achieving the coalition’s goals and objectives. Members of the coalition can join or contribute to any of these initiatives or establish new ones that are in line with the coalition’s objectives. The coalition initiatives are not designed to be new structures, but a means for addressing gaps and ensuring better coordination around important areas to drive progress quickly.

The following initiatives have been, or are being launched in 2021 by a coalition partner(s):  

— A Research Consortium: A research consortium was launched in May 2021 and is being led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The consortium will coordinate the efforts of academia, think tanks and research partners, with a focus on the global south. It will establish a 10-year research agenda to build evidence on the impacts of school meals at large and to specifically focus on the worsened learning crisis expected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence will be disseminated widely to support decision making and improve scale and quality of programmes.

— A Multisectoral Financing Taskforce for School Health & Nutrition: The low fiscal capacity of low-income countries for school meals and school health is the most important challenge to the scale-up and transition to national school meals programmes. A taskforce is being established under the leadership of the Global Education Forum to improve donor coordination, the efficiency of current funding arrangements, help countries increase their fiscal capacity through innovative solutions, and help marshal resources necessary to address this global challenge.

— An Advocacy & Outreach Taskforce:  An expert level taskforce of the coalition is working to position school meals in global fora and advance the goals and objective of the coalition. The task force will identify and develop strategies for engaging in globally and regionally relevant opportunities to raise the profile of school meals, nutrition and health and advance the coalition’s goals and objectives.  These opportunities may include the UN Food Systems Summit, Nutrition for Growth Summit, G7 and G20 meetings and others.

The following initiatives are being planned by partners for the post-launch phase of the coalition:
— A Peer-to-peer Community of Best Practice: Germany is exploring interest from member states to establish a peer-to-peer network to share lessons learned from national and local contexts and to inform and disseminate evidence-based policy and programme standards and guidance to strengthen school meals programmes. Learning from approaches like south-south and triangular cooperation, the network will bring together partners such as the Centers of Excellence in Brazil and Cote d’Ivoire and others, to support governments in sharing best practices, evidence and lessons-learned, which will improve the linkages between education, agriculture, health and nutrition and support integrated programmes and policies.

— A Monitoring & Accountability Mechanism:  The World Food Programme (WFP) is developing a global school meals database in partnership with Dubai Cares and regional groups like the African Union and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA/NEPAD), which will be used to track and monitor coalition accomplishments. WFP will also publish the report, “State of School Feeding Worldwide”, every two years which will serve as the reporting mechanism for the coalition. The latest edition of the report, published in 2021, serves as the global baseline for the coalition’s work and the establishment of targets.

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