How school food and nutrition activities can promote lifelong healthy eating habits
School feeding and school food and nutrition programmes are currently gaining visibility and being implemented in Africa. This discussion aims at sharing experiences and views on the features of these programmes and on how to scale them up and strengthen their impacts in the long term.
There is global consensus recognizing child nutrition as an essential element to improve not only the health and well-being of children around the world, but also the social and economic development of communities and countries. Schools play a central role in this process, providing the knowledge that new generations will require in order to become active members of society. They also have the potential to become powerful platforms for mainstreaming nutrition while promoting lifelong healthy eating habits.
There are nearly 795 million people in the world suffering from food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition (SOFI, 2015). On the other hand, in 2014 more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight. From this total over 600 million were obese. 42 million children under the age of five are obese. Most of the world’s population lives in countries where overweight and obesity kill more people than those who are underweight. The double burden of malnutrition is affecting the development of children; therefore urgent attention is needed in order to create favourable environments for the promotion of healthy eating
In line with UN agencies and the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), governments have committed to improve the nutritional status of children starting at an early age. Africa’s leadership through the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) previously agreed that the education, health and nutrition of young children and the leaders of tomorrow must be a priority. Given this mandate, nationally sourced school feeding was then included in the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).
School feeding programmes are the most commonly known school-based food security interventions, often designed as a component of social protection policies. Such programmes provide food (usually a snack or midday meal), and when properly designed and implemented, they can improve the food and nutrient intake of schoolchildren while maintaining and/or increasing attendance. Home-grown school feeding programmes (HGSF) (often referred to as home-grown school meals) add yet another dimension by linking school meals programmes to family farming. This generates a structured demand for their products, thereby stimulating the wider local economy. According to the NEPAD, currently at least 20 African countries have implemented HGSF programmes, ranging from government programmes that are partially supported by development partners to fully government-funded programmes.
However, in order to promote lifelong healthy eating habits, other elements beyond the scope of school meals programmes and structured demand from family farming will need to be taken into consideration. The role played by food in schools, besides ensuring food security, also needs to be sensory, nutritional and pedagogical. Therefore it is necessary to associate school feeding, as a practical experience, with pedagogical experiences such as nutrition education and school gardens.
To help governments achieve these goals, FAO has been implementing policy and regulatory frameworks on School Food and Nutrition that integrate and mutually reinforce the following core components:
- School meals – providing healthy menus, prioritizing food from family farming
- Food and nutrition education and training
- School gardens
- Nutrition and health-supporting environment
Certainly there are many other activities related to school food and nutrition that affect a child’s development, particularly from a health approach. The following interventions are worth highlighting: health education, micronutrient supplementation, deworming, monitoring of health and nutritional status, exercise & recreation, as well as other public health-related interventions (e.g. malaria prevention).
Improving inadequate dietary behaviours and reducing malnutrition are challenges that affect both developed and developing countries. Investing in nutrition means investing in human capital, and hence improving the capacity to have a fulfilling and productive life. Schools can play a key role in overcoming these great challenges; however, school retention cannot be the goal in itself, but only the first step towards implementing an integrated strategy for the promotion of lifelong healthy eating habits.
We look forward to hearing your experiences, opinions and suggestions regarding the role of schools in promoting lifelong healthy eating habits!
- Could you provide comments on school nutrition or school meals programmes already being implemented in your country? If so, have they been linked with activities on nutrition education and menus using food from family farming, or any other school nutrition intervention?
- Do you think that it is necessary to support countries in transitioning towards national ownership of School Food and Nutrition related programmes?
- What are the challenges of promoting School Food and Nutrition core components in an integrated and mutually reinforcing matter?
Josephine Kiamba, NEPAD, South Africa
Andrea Polo Galante, FAO, Italy