A high incidence and severity of poverty in many countries results in hunger, high school drop-out rates and low levels of learning, problems which affect millions of primary school children. The main nutritional problems facing school-age children include stunting, low body weight and micronutrient malnutrition, including deficiencies of iron, iodine and vitamin A. Children who come to school hungry, or are chronically malnourished, have diminished cognitive abilities that lead to reduced school performance. They also suffer from decreased physical activity and reduced resistance to disease, and hence have shorter life expectancy. In the long run, chronic undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies decrease individual potential and have adverse effects on productivity, incomes and national development.
Nutritional well-being requires access by all people at all times to adequate food, health, education and social care. The 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) held at FAO headquarters in Rome, and the World Food Summit: five years later (WFS:fyl) in 2002 reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food and to be free from hunger. Furthermore, the need to overcome hunger, poverty, and illiteracy is included in the two first Millennium Development Goals.
To protect and promote access to adequate food for all, FAO has launched a range of programmes and initiatives that are aimed at reducing poverty and helping individuals and households to improve their nutritional well-being and standards of living. The Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) which was initiated in 1994, two years before the WFS, is FAO's flagship programme, through which the Organization assists developing member countries in reducing the incidence of hunger and malnutrition, mainly by increasing productivity and diversifying production systems of small-scale farmers. The WFS:fyl resulted in all participating governments reaffirming their commitment to attain the goal of halving the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015. The Anti-Hunger Programme (AHP), launched during the WFS:fyl, makes a strong case for a twin-track approach towards meeting the WFS goal, which combines actions to improve the performance of small-scale farming with measures to broaden access to food, enabling the poorest people, who are unable to produce or buy enough food, to eat adequately. In those countries that have demonstrated the political will to launch a National Programme for Food Security (NPFS), FAO, through the evolving SPFS, will assist in identifying and implementing the combination of actions necessary to reach the goal of halving the number of undernourished persons by 2015.
In this context, FAO recognizes the important contribution that schools can make in member countries' efforts to overcome hunger, poverty and illiteracy. Schools are one of the main social contexts in which knowledge, behaviours, attitudes, values and life skills (e.g. personal responsibility, self-esteem, teamwork, decision-making and planning) are developed. They offer an effective vehicle through which to reach children, when habits and attitudes are being formed. Schools have the mandate to guide young people towards maturity and thus can play an important role in promoting learning about food, agriculture and nutrition. They have qualified personnel; they can spread the knowledge and skills that children acquire by involving families in their children's education; they can also serve as a channel for community participation and can provide cost-effective food and nutrition interventions.
School gardens are cultivated areas around or near to primary and/or secondary schools, which can be used mainly for learning purposes but could also generate some food and income for the school. School garden activities usually comprise horticultural crops but may include small-scale animal husbandry and fishery, beekeeping, fruit trees, ornamental plants and shading, as well as small-scale staple food production.
Historically, stakeholders with different priorities have developed school gardening along differing lines. In the North, garden-based learning (meaning using gardens as laboratories for practical learning of basic subjects such as biology, environment, mathematics, chemistry, language, arts, etc.) is prevalent and has been quite successful, whereas in the South, school-based food production has been the main orientation. The latter has faced many difficulties and has generally proved to be unsustainable. As a result, specialists in this field share the opinion that the new challenge for school gardens is to help students learn about food production, nutrition and environment education and personal and social development related with basic academic skills (reading, writing, arithmetic) while generating some food production to supplement school feeding programmes.
In order for children to grow up and become healthy citizens with secure livelihoods, one of the urgent needs is to enable children to stay in school and to acquire knowledge and skills which are relevant to their lives and environment. Learning how to prepare a garden to produce vegetables, fruits and other foods; conserving water and other natural resources; planting, processing and preparing foods for optimal nutritional value and income; selecting and buying foods from farmers' markets and supermarket shelves to get best value for money; practising proper food safety, personal hygiene and sanitation; learning to work in a group and solve problems; learning to adopt a healthy diet and life style, including in situations of high HIV/AIDS infection rates and so on. These are some of the skills that will help children to deal effectively with future life situations. This can be done through the introduction of garden-based learning.