The Right to Food

Investing in the food and nutrition of all children is a human rights issue

News - 09.12.2021

9 December 2021, Rome - Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 388 million schoolchildren received school meals in 161 countries, making these programmes the most extensive safety net worldwide. However, the situation has changed following pandemic-driven school closures, leaving millions unable to access what, for many, was the only nutritious meal of the day. This has disrupted their enjoyment of the right to adequate food, brought an end to a decade of global growth in school feeding programmes, and contributed to rising food insecurity.

In the context of the pandemic and within the frame of the recent UN Food Systems Summit, the School Meals Coalition was launched to reverse this trend by 2030 and restore access to these vital safety nets. The group is made up of more than 60 countries, led by France and Finland, with the support of WFP, FAO, UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO and other organizations. The coalition aims to boost recovery of existing programmes, expand their coverage for the most vulnerable and improve their quality.

These important pledges have been made in the face of the crisis, but it is not the first time leaders raise their voices to ensure every child can access nutritious, safe and adequate food.

School meal programmes, when coupled with complementary interventions such as food and nutrition education, food environment policies and access to clean water and sanitation services, have been viewed as a game changer for the fulfilment of children´s human rights, in particular the right to adequate food. They can contribute to addressing hunger and improving children’s diet quality and food practices. They can also support their rights to health and education, as they encourage school attendance and help prevent child labour. This is especially true for the rights of girls, as when coupled with other targeted interventions, these programmes can help to reduce the risk of child marriage, early pregnancies and gender-based violence, while addressing the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.

 “Comprehensive rights-based school meals policies not only strengthen the rights of children and local communities, but can also make a huge difference to the well-being of people, nations and their economies in the long-term”, said Juan Carlos García y Cebolla, FAO Right to Food Team Leader. “They can help to reduce poverty and malnutrition in all its forms, supporting countries to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their climate ambitions”, she added.

Holistic school meal programmes can also help others to enjoy their human rights. For instance, these can empower smallholders or women producers when they are linked to agriculture support programmes and local procurement and market initiatives.

Furthermore, designing and implementing school meal programmes with environmental sustainability and biodiversity considerations may also spark and promote more sustainable production practices which adapt to and help tackle climate change effects — a serious threat to the right to adequate food. 

Applying human rights standards in these type of programmes requires an inclusive multisectoral and multidisciplinary approach, which looks at several areas, such as agriculture, health, education, and social protection.

 “School meals and other foods available at school represent an important share of children’s and adolescents’ diets around the world. Thus it is essential that these are acceptable, desirable and aligned with their nutrition priorities and the possibilities of the local food system, while the whole school food environment should be coherent with what children learn about healthy diets. Defining nutrition guidelines and standards for school food can facilitate all this, which represent a key tool to support the right to food for this vulnerable population group” explained Fatima Hachem, Senior Nutrition Officer at FAO.

Several human rights instruments set obligations for countries to implement legislation and policies that fulfil children´s rights.  Among them, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the General Comment N. 12 by the CESCR, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Right to Food Guidelines, adopted by FAO Council in November 2004, also provide related policy recommendations, including on nutrition, education and food safety.

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