Nutrition and education: a winning combination

In El Salvador, sustainable school feeding programmes improve eating habits of entire communities

Children across El Salvador are learning what it means to have a healthy diet thanks to the Sustainable Schools methodology, developed as part of a South-South and Triangular Cooperation initiative. ©FAO/Andrea Galdamez


A few years ago, Vanesa Cárcamo’s school canteen sold only drinks full of sugar, sandwiches filled with saturated fats and snacks high in salt and low in nutrientsShe, like all the students, at the Cantón San Isidro school in Izalco, El Salvador didn’t see the problem with this – after all, the food tasted good! What they didn’t realize, however, was how bad it was for their health and future. 

“Before, we didn’t have a healthy diet, focused on nutrition,” recalls 17-year-old Vanesa. “We didn’t understand the effect of food on our bodies, and we didn’t know that junk food was bad for us and our health." 

Now it’s a different story. The school canteen serves all the students, aged 4 to 18, healthy, nutritious meals made with local produce, such vegetables and fruits. Some of the ingredients even come from the school garden, which is tended to and harvested by school students. The biggest change of all is that students are aware of the difference between healthy and non-healthy foods and make the effort to maintain a nutritious diet. So, what caused this change? 

Nutrition education 

In 2014 things first began to change for Vanesa and the other 1 500 students of the Cantón San Isidro school, when it started receiving the support of FAO and the FAO-Brazil Cooperation. This partnership, in the framework of South-South and Triangular Cooperation, developed the Sustainable Schools methodology in Latin America and Caribbean.  

Noting that in El Salvador, 38 percent of first graders are overweight or obese, Diego Recalde, FAO Representative in the country, explains the importance of sustainable schools, “In El Salvador we have been working alongside the FAO-Brazil Cooperation and the Ministry of Education to strengthen the school feeding programmes by training teachers and students and by providing technical assistance for policy formulation (School Feeding Law)," he says.

The initiative aims to encourage the participation of local communities, educate students on food and nutrition, offer healthy menus, use school gardens as teaching tools and procure ingredients from local family farmers.

The Cantón San Isidro school also selected students to become ambassadors of healthy eating habits, as part of the school’s ‘Youth Facilitators on Nutrition and Food Security initiative’ to help spread the word among the classmates. In addition, the school garden became a live classroom for hands-on learning, capturing the attention of students, parents and teachers.

Vanesa confirms, “It is very important to have these topics of school feeding and nutrition in the curriculum. We are clear about what we should and should not eat daily and this is knowledge for life,” she says. “If this project had not come, I would never have started eating healthily.”

The school gardens have quickly become a favourite pastime for both students and parents. ©FAO/Andrea Galdamez

A healthy community

The school’s director, Manuel Guerrero, is vocal about the difference these changes have made to his students’ health. His school has become a role model for good practices in food and nutrition and a reference at the national level showing the benefits of the Sustainable Schools methodology. 

"Our students have changed their attitude towards food. They have learned to distinguish between good and bad nutrition,” he says, adding that it has allowed them to choose the kind of food they eat not only at school but at home with their families too. Some parents also help take care of the school gardens, getting the entire family involved in forming healthy habits. 

Thanks to the school garden initiative, there is “better attendance of children, greater participation of families and more interest from students," Manuel says.

But the changes did not stay only in the school environment, as Vanesa explains, “I have shared much of the knowledge I learned with my family, and I am proud of that.” In fact, using the skills she learned in the school garden, Vanesa has created one at home too.  “We have made a garden at home now and our diet has changed a lot. The garden is vital for us, and this is what I love the most. We eat a lot of vegetables that we grow ourselves.”   

A healthy local economy

One big part of the Sustainable Schools initiative is to encourage the schools to purchase fresh produce from local family farmers. 

Anyone can then put themselves forward as a supplier, including local parents, farming associations and cooperatives. Direct purchases from family farmers promotes local development and generates a market for small producers.

For Vanesa, the knowledge she gained through the Sustainable Schools initiative has helped her form good habits for life. ©FAO

Improved school feeding

There are now 450 Sustainable Schools in El Salvador and Vanesa is one of 148 066 students to have benefited from this initiative. As a South-South and Triangular Cooperation initiative, the Sustainable Schools methodology was developed by the FAO-Brazil Cooperation, through the project, Consolidation of School Feeding in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is implemented by FAO, the Brazilian Cooperation Agency and the National Fund for Educational Development.

According to Najla Veloso, the project’s coordinator, the implementation of the methodology has enhanced the national policy of school feeding and has improved “the education and health of children in more than 23 000 schools in 13 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, offering better learning conditions, longer permanence in schools and guaranteeing the Human Right to Adequate Food for 1.6 million students.”

In 2020, FAO supported a national process to analyze the strengths and challenges for food education in schools to be carried out effectively. The action brought together more than 50 representatives of government institutions, educators and parents, who validated a national capacity development strategy. This strategy is expected to be the roadmap for the different actors in the country to join efforts in a coherent and coordinated manner for better food education for all Salvadoran school children.

Schools aren’t just a place for learning academic subjects but for life skills too. They are a perfect place to promote education on nutritious diets, food security and health, helping set children up for life.  

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2. Zero hunger, 3. Good health and well-being, 4. Quality education, 17. Partnership for the goals