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FAO-WFP online event explores the role of policy and legal frameworks in implementing nutrition standards for school food

23/05/2022

On 12 May 2022, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) jointly hosted the online event “School food and nutrition policy and legal frameworks. School meal nutrition guidelines and standards – a tool to support the right to food”. Attended by more than 300 participants, the event focused on the importance of coherent, realistic, sustainable and flexible policy and legal frameworks for the implementation of nutrition standards for school food, which are a useful tool for realizing the right to adequate food for schoolchildren and adolescents.

“FAO is fully committed to improving the nutrition and supporting the achievement of the right to food of schoolchildren and adolescents by strengthening systemic capacities and by providing coherent policy and legal advice to design, implement and evaluate effective and holistic school food and nutrition interventions” stated Nancy Aburto, Deputy Director of the Food and Nutrition Division at FAO, who provided opening remarks.

Carmen Burbano, Director of the School Based Programmes Division at WFP, also provided welcoming remarks highlighting the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises in children’s food security and nutrition, and the role of school feeding programmes in national recovery efforts. Regarding the relevance of robust national policy frameworks, she stated: “School feeding programmes that have proved successful have integrated both relevant policy and powerful practice. They have also highlighted the essential role that national governments play as the main stakeholder in achieving success, and as the main vehicle for programmatic delivery”.

The event also featured the participation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food through a video message.

“When you bring the right to food into the conversation on nutrition guidelines and standards, it can do several things, as it frames people as rights-bearers, means that accountability must be taken into consideration, and makes it easier to be consistent and flexible. The right to food also allows for guidelines and standards to align with the cultural and social contexts of particular communities” explained Michael Fakhri, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Serena Pepino, Policy Expert of FAO’s Right to Food Team and Luisa Cruz, Legal Expert of the Development Law Service framed the theme of the event by highlighting international commitments to ensure the realization of the right to food, such as those stemming from the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) or the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), during which countries agreed that NGS are a recommended intervention to improve children’s nutrition, using schools as a privileged setting. They also underlined that incorporating nutrition guidelines and standards (NGS) for school food into policy frameworks while adopting a human rights-based approach, are an important and meaningful indicator of the country’s priorities and direction.

They emphasized that legislation translates political intentions into legal obligations and give sustainability to society’s norms by making policy objectives enforceable and permanent in time. Therefore, translating the school food NGS into regulatory instruments is a significant step to give greater protection to the nutrition component of the right to food. 

The intervention was concluded by recalling the importance of assessing the impact of such standards, including quantifying how much their implementation will cost, as well as constantly evaluating them to ensure compliance with policy and legislative objectives. It is important for the standards to be flexible, even if they are mandatory, so that they may adapt to changing contexts.

The event also featured experts from Spain, France and Guatemala who illustrated how NGS were incorporated into policies and legislation in their own countries, showcasing lessons learned as well as the main issues and challenges encountered in the process.

Doris Xiomara Monroy-Parada, Specialist in Public Health and Preventative Medicine at the Catalan Health Institute, explained that given the main objective of school nutrition policies in Spain to prevent obesity and improve the nutrition of students, in 2010, the Autonomous Communities in the country adopted the “Documento de Consenso sobre la Alimentación en los Centros Educativos” as a reference for the composition of the menu and the nutritional quality of the products offered at school. However, only four Autonomous Communities so far have regulated nutrition standards by Decree. Challenges stated by the speaker included the evaluation of how those standards are being met vis a vis their objectives and the lack of coherence with other foods available in the school. The speaker stressed that the standards should be revised according to current scientific knowledge and should be approved by regulation. To address some of these challenges, in April 2022, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs opened a public consultation on a draft Royal Decree for the promotion of healthy and sustainable food in schools to establish food and nutrition standards in schools by Decree.

Nicole Darmon, Research Director of the French Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, explained that where school meals are offered, all children must be able to access it without discrimination, according to a law on equality and citizenship. Recommendations for defining the nutritional criteria of school meals have existed since the 1970s and have evolved with a view to increasing the frequency of fruits and vegetables served, better take into account the habits in French overseas territories, and more recently to integrate environmental sustainability considerations. 

The speaker explained how research played a key role in assessing the impact of nutrition standards and contributed not only to improving them over time but also to making them mandatory by decree, demonstrating that their implementation does not lead to higher costs which at the time was the main obstacle to its adoption. Finally, the speaker affirmed the need of assessing the impact of the standards from a nutritional, economic, environmental and cultural perspective in order to ensure sustainability.

Finally, Jairo Flores, Parliamentarian of the Congress of Guatemala and Regional Coordinator of the Parliamentary Front against Hunger for Latin America and the Caribbean, highlighted the importance of the country’s Ley de Alimentación Escolar (Decreto 16-2017) in ensuring the right to adequate food for schoolchildren. The purpose of this law is to guarantee the provision of school meals to over 2 million pre-primary and primary schoolchildren over 180 school days per year, while promoting healthy diets for children and adolescents in both public and private schools. A particular attention is given to the local level, with nutritionists preparing menus in line with local cultural contexts to improve their acceptability, and family farming supported with purchases of produce for school food which inject resources into the rural economy.

Mr. Flores, underlined the vital role of parliamentarians, working in coordination with the executive, academia, civil society, and other stakeholders in securing sound legislative and policy frameworks, with the necessary oversight and fiscal commitment for implementation. This had served to increase the budget for school food, strengthen nutrition participation of families, and establish a monitoring Commission. Working with the Parliamentary Front against Hunger, framing school programmes within international obligations and the right to adequate food, helped raise awareness and facilitate urgent responses to tackle the impact of school closures on access to school food for children in Guatemala during COVID-19.  

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. 

This event is part of a series of four-webinars focusing on each of these key areas: the next webinar will take place in July and will focus on the importance of school food environments.