Governments will this week gather in Rome for a UN event with one of those titles designed to induce profound boredom. The FAO is marking the second anniversary of the 2021 World Food System Summit with a ‘Stocktaking Moment’. Yes, I know, those two words feel like a good enough reason to stop reading right now, but bear with me.
As the saying goes, ‘we are what we eat’. And our food systems – the way we produce, market, and consume food – are making our world undernourished, unhealthy and unsustainable.
The report card tells its own story. Around 735 million people are now living with hunger. On current trends, malnutrition levels in 2030, the international target date for ‘zero hunger’, will be the same as they were in 2015, when the target was adopted. Intensive agriculture is raising farm yields but wreaking environmental havoc, fuelling biodiversity loss, and contributing one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions driving us to climate catastrophe. Then there’s humanity’s weight problem. As the world converges on the high-fat, ultra-processed diets marketed by an increasingly reckless global food industry, an epidemic of poor diets, obesity and overweight now kills one-in-five- adults – more than tobacco.
This is not a time for ‘taking stock’ at soporific inter-governmental gatherings. It’s a time for change. The UN’s Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed has called for ‘urgent action at scale’. The danger is that the Rome event, much like the Food System Summit itself, will turn into a talk shop that delivers (yet another) communique that is long on principles but short on bold, practical initiatives.
One way to avoid that outcome would be to take an old policy idea and make it a new force for the transformation of food systems: the provision of school meals.
Children are the hidden victims of our food system failures. Take the case of under-nutrition. The international monitoring of child nutrition focuses overwhelmingly on the under-5 age group and the crucial ‘first 1000 days’ of life. But what about the rest of childhood, the crucial growth spurts that happen during adolescence, and the transition to adulthood – a period Don Bundy, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, describes as the critical ‘8000 days’ ?
In a background paper prepared for the ‘Stocktake’, we provide new estimates for under-nutrition among school age children. Applying regional malnutrition rates to UN age-cohort data, some 284 million children of primary and secondary school age are going hungry. Around half live in Africa, a share that is rising rapidly, but progress has stalled in South Asia and is in reverse gear in Latin America. No region is immune.
It’s not just the poorest countries that are affected. As the cost-of-living crisis intensifies across Europe, in the UK, the Food Foundation found that a quarter of households were affected by food insecurity in late 2022 – three times the level pre-pandemic level. Some 4 million children were living in those households.
It doesn’t take a UN summit to work out the consequences of undernutrition for education. Just ask any parent or teacher. Hunger and learning are not good bedfellows. Moreover, the poverty behind poor nutrition puts children – especially adolescent girls – at risk of being pulled out of school and into labour markets.
Sadly, the siloes separating ‘health policy’ from ‘education policy’ have stymied an effective response to the problem, but history offers important lessons and some cause for hope. The late-19th Century British social reformer Margaret Macmillan saw school meals as a great unifier with the potential to cut across political divides. Her campaign culminated in legislation adopted in 1906 allowing public funds to be used to provide for children “unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided to them.”
If you want a vehicle for reaching under-nourished children and unlocking lost learning potential, school meals are a good bet. One big advantage is that they already exist. They are among the world’s most extensive safety nets – and safety nets can be rapidly expanded. School meal programmes have a proven track record not just in delivering decent food and improving school attendance, but in improving learning outcomes. Ghana’s school feeding programme raised learning levels with the poorest children registering the biggest gains.
The gains can cross generational boundaries. In India, home to the world’s largest school meals scheme, the children of mothers who received meals are less likely to be stunted and more likely to have better health.
Well-designed school meal programmes are also part of the policy toolkit for tackling the public-health problems associated with food system failures. Children are also on the front-line of the global obesity crisis. One-in-three of Latin America’s children are now overweight or obese. Numbers are also rising in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These children face elevated prospects of obesity in adulthood, along with the associated health risks.
School canteens may not be an obvious battleground in the battle for healthier diets – but that’s what they are. Providing children with tasty, healthy, and nutritious foods at school can help cultivate consumption preferences for low-far, low-sodium foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables. And changing adolescent diets today is one way of changing the food markets of the future. That’s why countries across Latin America are following the examples of Finland, France, and others who have made school meals an integral part of public health policy.
Of course, school meals are not a stand-alone strategy. Multinational food corporations like to pitch up at UN summits and express their undying commitment to public health and all things SDG. But their formidable advertising and marketing capabilities are directed towards hooking children on products that will harm their health, notably high-fat, ultra-processed food. That’s why school meals need to be part of a wider response – including taxes on sugars, tighter labelling laws, and restrictions on advertising – that put public health before corporate profit.
While school meal provision may represent a financial drop in a multi-trillion-dollar food market ocean, it provides a powerful tool for change. Governments and municipal authorities can use the power of procurement to signal public policy priorities. In Brazil, where every child in a public school receives a free meal, one-third of the budget is reserved for smallholder farmers. Municipalities like São Paolo – the largest in the country – is gearing school meal procurement towards low-carbon, regenerative agriculture. If you’re looking for an inspiring vision for the food system of the future, and a case study in effective advocacy, check out the web-site of Brazil’s Comida do Amanhã Institute.
What is happening in Brazil is part of a wider story. Across the world, school meal programmes are nudging their way into the mainstream of public policy reforms linking food justice to public health, and climate justice. You can see that nudge in the EU’s Farm-to-Fork strategy and the Biden Administration’s American Families Plan. You can see it in the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an agreement linking over 100 municipalities working to reshape food systems. You can see it in the way that campaigning and advocacy organisations make common cause on food system reform. And you can read about it in the brilliant work of Jess Fanzo, now at the Columbia Climate School, who has done an intellectual demolition job on the siloed thinking that has hampered food system reform.
The problem is that the school feeding safety net is weakest where it needs to be strongest – namely in the countries and communities hit hardest by rising malnutrition. Fewer than one-in-five children in the world’s poorest countries currently have access. In Africa, where under a quarter of children are covered, the combination of double-digit food price inflation, rising debt, and shrinking tax revenues threatens to erode already inadequate provision.
The ’Stocktake Moment’ is an opportunity to put school meals at the centre of a bold and practical agenda for transforming food systems. Countries at the sharp end of the nutrition crisis should be a first order priority. Momentum is already building. The new Kenyan government has set out plans for universal provision by 2030. Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries, is already nearing that target. Countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have also set ambitious goals. The impetus for change, along with the bulk of the financing, has come not from aid donors, but from developing country governments gathered in the global School Meals Coalition.
What would it take to build on these and many other initiatives to build a global force for change? Apart from political leadership (that’s for another blog), the answer to that question is more finance. Research carried out for the School Meals Consortium estimates that it would take around $5.8bn a year to reach an additional 73 million of the world’s poorest children. Around $1.7-2bn would need to come from aid for the poorest countries; the rest from governments.
As the fiscal space available to governments shrinks, that may look like a tall order – but it is within reach. Increased taxes are never popular, but linked directly to a cause enjoying widespread public support they can be more palatable. India uses earmarked taxes to fund its school meal programmes. In Bolivia a universal school meals programme is financed by a small tax on hydrocarbon exports. Countries like Senegal, Tanzania, and Mozambique with the prospect of windfall gains from natural gas exports could follow that example.
International cooperation could also play a critical role. Current levels of aid for school meals are desperately low – typically around $220m, or less than 1 per cent of overall aid flows – and poorly coordinated. As the EU, the US and other aid donor countries commit to expanding school meal programmes the Rome ‘Stocktake’ is their opportunity. Financing the School Meals Coalition plan would cost will cost less than the $2bn a day now directed to their farm subsidies.
Innovative approaches to debt relief offer another avenue. With over 20 countries in Africa either in or at risk of debt distress, repayments to creditors are crowding out vital public spending. ‘Debt-for-school-meal swaps’, modelled on approaches that are now commonplace for environmental investments, could convert unpayable debts into alleviating hunger and unlocking learning opportunities for millions of children.
Transforming food systems is a complex undertaking. This is a territory marked by powerful vested interests, partisan politics, and divided opinion. By contrast, tackling hunger among school children cuts across political divides – it takes political leadership, not rocket science.