Alimentation scolaire et nutrition

School food environments at the centre of discussion of FAO-WFP online event


On 21st July, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) held the second online event of their series on school food, titled "Healthy school food environments. Seeking policy and technical coherence", which was attended by more than 200 participants.

When in school, children and adolescents have access to food and beverages, take example from their peers, teachers and other school staff, are exposed to commercial, informational and other influences, and can also be involved in food and nutrition education programmes and initiatives. Schools therefore constitute a key setting where children and adolescents develop and shape their dietary and other food practices.

"To improve children and adolescents’ diets through school food we need to think systemically, as the impact of interventions such as food and nutrition education can be hampered by competing goals or inconsistencies in other dimensions. For this reason, FAO supports countries in developing and implementing comprehensive policies that ensure coherence within the whole school food environment, so that it can complement and enhance the impact of the other interventions" states Lynnette Neufeld, the Director of FAO’s Food and Nutrition Division.

The school food environment refers to all the spaces, infrastructure and conditions inside and around the school where food is available, obtained, purchased and/or consumed, also taking into consideration the food’s nutritional content, the information provided, and the way it is promoted and priced. As school food environments shape how accessible, affordable, desirable and convenient specific foods are, it is key that they support the development of practices that contribute to children and adolescents’ health and wellbeing.

School meal programmes are a key part of healthy school food environments. In the case of home grown school feeding programmes, these establish a connection between nutritious meals and locally sourced produce, with important benefits for school achievement, employment and national economic growth. However, these programmes, which often provide the only nutritious meal in the day for vulnerable children and often model what a healthy meal looks like, are being currently pressed by global challenges.

"The pandemic has been a huge blow to this whole agenda. In many countries the programmes have not been restored and this is also getting compounded by the rising food prices caused by the worldwide food crisis. Of the 345 million people that are estimated to be acutely food insecure, we are calculating that a little bit less than half (160 million) of them are children. This also signals the powerful safety net that school meals represent" explains Carmen Burbano, the Director of WFP’s School Based Programmes Division.

The webinar was composed of two technical sessions. In the first one, technical experts from FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) focused on the importance of ensuring coherence between school food environment policies and interventions, and the various ways in which this can be ensured. Among the addressed topics, the experts focused on how nutrition guidelines and standards (NGS) can play a key role in supporting the creation of healthy school food environments, on how nudges can promote healthy eating in schools, and on how children must be involved to enhance their sense of ownership.

In the second session, the focus was given to country experiences, with experts sharing best practices and lessons learned. Among the addressed topics were the Alberta Nutrition Report Card, an annual assessment of how Alberta’s food environments and nutrition policies support or create barriers to improving children’s eating behaviours; the school food environment assessments carried out in Ghana to inform the development of food policy in the country; and the study Understanding the drivers of dietary choices and snack food environment of primary school children in Lao PDR and the Philippines. The presentations by technical and country experts were complemented by the voices of two young representatives from El Salvador and from the United Kingdom who shared their experiences within their food environments.

The event was organized in the framework of a FAO-WFP project aimed at designing a global methodology for countries to define and implement their nutrition guidelines and standards for school food. The methodology will be accompanied by guidance on key areas that can support the implementation of NGS and enhance their impact, and this event is part of a series of four webinars focusing on each of these key areas. The next webinar will take place in September and will focus on the importance of procurement to implement nutrition guidelines and standards for school food.