School food global hub

FAO, WFP and WHO host event on the role of nutrition standards for school food



On 16th December 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly held the event “What schools can do for children’s nutrition and food system transformation”. An official side event of the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit 2021 and attended by about 150 participants, the event focused on what, how and why the nutrition content of school meals and other foods available in and through schools have changed  over time in many countries. These changes – not all of which leading to improvements in the quality of meals and foods available – occurred  in response to complex and interrelated economic, agriculture and nutrition, health, education, emergency and environmental issues.

The event built on the recent launch of the School Meals Coalition, which is coordinated by WFP and aims to ensure that every child has the opportunity to receive a healthy and nutritious meal in school by 2030. The Coalition’s Declaration of Commitment has already been signed by 61 countries, while its Declaration of Support has been signed by 58 partners, including FAO, WHO and UNICEF.

In this framework, speakers outlined the vital role that school meals play in the lives of many schoolchildren and adolescents around the world, addressing various forms of malnutrition and contributing towards their health and wellbeing. A particular focus was then given to how the development and implementation of nutrition guidelines and standards for school food bring the potential benefits even further.

“One of the objectives of the School Meals Coalition, is about quality and how these programmes can become truly the platforms that we all hope they can be, including better and more nutritious food, including better and healthier environments for children and schools and including the connection to all of these complementary approaches on school health and nutrition, and of course better nutrition standards for these meals in countries ” added Carmen Burbano, Director of WFP’s School Based Programmes Division.

“Nutrition standards for school food are generally acceptable by a range of stakeholders, but we still need to strengthen the evidence base, improve their development by considering key contextual factors, such as values and resource implications, and to enhance their implementation with a view on reducing inequalities” stated Katrin Engelhardt, Scientist at WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.

Speakers described the approach and objectives of the project that FAO and WFP are carrying out to develop a methodology that supports countries in designing feasible, context-specific and evidence-informed nutrition guidelines and standards. The resulting set of standards will optimize the quality, quantity and adequacy of school food, so that it supports the right to food and health of schoolchildren. This “whole-school” approach also envisions the development, implementation and/or integration of complementary measures, such as food education and interventions on the school food environment, thus further contributing towards shaping healthier food practices.

“The existence of guidelines and standards is a necessary first step that demonstrates commitment towards setting a minimum quality for school food and, if implemented within a coherent and multisectoral approach, can be an effective tool to support local food system transformation” explained Nancy Aburto, Deputy Director of FAO’s Food and Nutrition Division.

The event included the presentation of two country experiences, Brazil and the United Kingdom, to showcase how these countries’ school meals evolved over time, for example to address evolving nutrition priorities or to respond to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The development and implementation of standards for school food aim to enhance the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents; however, their voice is seldom taken into account. A participatory approach can increase the acceptability of healthier school meals by children and their families: social activist Christina Adane stressed that involving young people in the development phase could avoid the perception of food choices being imposed onto them, which in some cases can lead people to reject healthier foods. On this occasion too, the social campaigner reiterated the importance of free school meals as a means to ensure access to healthy food, especially for children in less affluent contexts.