But worldwide, 149 million children under the age of five are too small for their age. 40 million are overweight. Many millions are suffering from deficiencies of key nutrients.
Many of these children are carrying over their nutritional problems into school age which affects their capacity to learn and overall development.
Addressing malnutrition is central to improving individual development and well-being, advancing the overall economic and social development of families and communities and ensuring the Right to Food for vulnerable people.
Likewise, the current environmental and socioeconomic issues around the world are threatening the very existence of future generations and can’t be ignored or separated from the efforts to address malnutrition.
Let’s look at the pathways towards improving nutrition and promoting more sustainable food practices for schoolchildren and adolescents and see what FAO and partners are doing to support these pathways around the world.
Forming long-term healthy eating habits not only requires regular access and exposure to nutritious foods, but also positive influences from caregivers and peers, skill development and motivation. This is where schools come in!
Key moments inside and outside the classroom can become opportunities for children and adolescents to learn about how food systems work and about how to make changes and develop skills to improve aspects of their own diets.
Essential and complementary to this is the food available in and around schools, which is often a key part of children´s daily diets and nutrient requirements.
Alongside hands-on, practical, and meaningful food education sessions, school staff and teachers can act as important role models. Even staff’s own food behaviours and beliefs can make a difference.
Head teacher on how food education impacts children’s lives
There are many ways school meal programs can support better quality and enjoyable diets for schoolchildren, as well as more sustainable practices for those who produce, process and prepare such meals. These ways range from ensuring that the meals provided are aligned with what is taught in the classroom, planning menus that promote procurement of nutritious and low input crops, to creating jobs and long-term training programmes for processors, cooks, evaluators, and so on.
Parent on what kind of food education she would like for her child in school
When used as learning labs, school gardens can form an understanding of the connections between food, personal and community health, and the natural world.
Teacher on benefits of using school gardens as learning platforms
From a very early age, children pick up food behaviours by observing and imitating others. If the home diet is lacking in variety or in certain essential foods, or laden with empty calories, it can be the result of wider social norms at large. Such behaviours can also be influenced by marketing and advertising.
As social media has evolved, so have the ways of food advertising, which depend more and more on young influencers, app ads, short videos, among others.
Adolescent on how food advertisements impact her and other children’s choices
As a response to the international call for improved nutrition and food systems, FAO created a framework for action through school policies and programmes.
FAO aims to support countries not only to ensure that children in school consume adequate, nutritious, diverse, safe and enjoyable food for improved learning, but also to foster lasting, healthy and more sustainable food practices that extend to their families.
Promoting a healthy food environment and school food
School food environments include all the spaces in and around schools where food is available, purchased and/or consumed (for example school meals, tuck shops, kiosks, canteens, food vendors, vending machines), as well as the information, promotion and prices of such foods. Food environments shape how accessible, affordable, desirable and convenient those foods are to the school community.
Stimulating inclusive procurement and value chains for school food
When school meal programmes purchase fresh and nutritious foods from local farmers, this can provide economic opportunities and improve community development.
Integrating effective food education throughout the whole school system
Effective food education in schools aims to help schoolchildren, adolescents and their communities to improve their food practices, as well as to build their capacity to act as agents of change in their own food environments.
FAO promotes a “whole school” approach to food education, where all people that interact in the school setting, including children, their families, teachers, school staff, local farmers, foodservice staff, food vendors, and government staff are involved.
Creating an enabling political, legal, financial and institutional environment
To be successful, policies and programmes to improve school food and nutrition need mechanisms that allow for the coordination of the various sectors involved, regular funding and the development of institutional capacities.
FAO works with international and national partners to provide guidance on the development, revision and adoption of national, regional, or global policies, and legal and regulatory instruments in the area of school food and nutrition.
Partnerships are key to achieve shared goals and maximize the impact of common efforts: FAO constantly and strongly collaborates with other organizations and UN sister agencies in the rollout of its programmes.
FAO is partnering with WFP, with the support of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture, to assist countries in defining minimum criteria for quality and nutritious school meals and other foods available in schools.
FAO and UNICEF are collaborating to develop the capacities of different countries to design food education programmes that are meaningful, relevant to today´s complex development challenges, and of high impact.
During the peak of school closures in 2020, more than 350 million children in 199 countries were missing out on meals at school due to pandemic response measures. At present, more than 150 million children are still kept away from schools and are not benefiting regularly from school meals and other nutrition services.
To mitigate the effects on schoolchildren, FAO, WFP and UNICEF have provided government decision makers, school administrators/staff and partners with guidance and assistance to help safeguard schoolchildren’s food security and nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What actions can we all take to ensure proper nutrition for schoolchildren? Let’s find out how we can all play our part.