The Coalition Secretariat holds a one-on-one conversation with Mr Mehrdad Ehsani, Vice-President of the Africa Food Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation.
The Rockefeller Foundation believes the School Meals Coalition is the best place where actors can launch their school meal initiatives and receive global support. The coalition offers a great opportunity to share learnings, best practices, and new innovations with 90 countries and development partners. In this conversation with Mr Mehrdad Ehsani, he describes the Coalition as a strategic platform for governments and partners planning to “up their game” in expanding their school meal programmes to provide more nutritious food to more children and beat the effects of climate change. He spoke to us ahead of the first School Meals Coalition Global Summit taking place in Paris on 18-19 October.
Q: Why is the school meals agenda so important now in the work of the Rockefeller Foundation?
A: We focused most of our historical agricultural development focused on fighting hunger and trying to improve the productivity of smallholder farmers. While there were some successes in Latin America and in Asia, and less so in Africa, we found that we needed to look deeper at how we can improve the wellbeing of people and communities, in totality. We wanted to avoid ending up with a food system that is a value-destroying sector, and it was important for us to include environmentally-friendly agricultural practices, as well as health and socioeconomic factors impacting millions of smallholder-farmers.
This got us thinking that while food security was important, we wanted to bring nutrition, sustainability, and regenerative agriculture into our work to connect these elements and create more opportunities for development. Our hypothesis was that the changes we wanted to see should be demand-driven to signal a shift in the food systems. But as you know, it’s difficult and expensive to influence a mass of decision-makers and billions of consumers; we didn’t have the kind of money required to push that agenda. We therefore thought it was more strategic to try and influence a few clients that control institutional markets and show them the power and benefits of shifting supply chains to make food more nutritious, more inclusive, and promoting local procurement and climate-resilient practices. We tried to be opportunistic in leveraging the power of school meals not to only promote children’s access to nutritious food, which is so important in these times of climate-induced hunger, but to also use the school meals market to signal a necessary shift in the food systems.
Q: Looking at the Foundation’s history and your vision for a holistic approach, how are you working to ensure that shift in the food systems happens?
A: The first step for us was to have a partner because we are not an implementer, and the World Food Programme (WFP) was the natural choice because we believe they procure the largest quantities of food in the world. It was important for us to leverage their capacity to wield the power of institutional markets, especially looking at how WFP is trusted and has the ear of governments. We saw an opportunity in this partnership to influence the procurement of food and drive an agenda that would be good for people and for the planet.
One of our focus areas around school meals is leveraging capacities to influence systems, whether it’s around measuring the quality of diet in schools for investors/funders to understand how that is impacting human health or working together to develop good food-purchasing standards that can guide countries. Working at country level, there are opportunities to create demonstrations that governments can, in a budget-neutral way, improve school menus. This helps to improve nutrition, build more sustainable and resilient agriculture, and promote local procurement, which then strengthens investment in school meals.
Q: In the School Meals ecosystem, the Coalition is the new kid on the block advocating for governments to expand their commitment to responsive school meals. What opportunities are you seeing being part of the Coalition…what are you bringing to this platform?
A: The issue of climate-smart school meals is pertinent right now, and it’s going to become even more pertinent going forward because new data is telling us that food-insecurity and undernourishment is growing in sub–Saharan Africa and Asia among children.
School meal programmes are an effective safety net to help countries tackle many problems, such as child-malnutrition and can help build communities’ resilience through support to smallholder-farmers and providing schools as markets for their produce.
We know that these climate-induced shocks and turbulences are going to worsen. Given that 87% of the calories from cereals are from the Big Three — wheat, rice, and maize – and just over a half a dozen countries produce the majority of this for the world, the global food system is then vulnerable to climate change. In any given year, production will be impacted in one or two of these mega-producing countries. Supply shocks trigger unhealthy dynamics such as hoarding of food, speculation, and export bans which all conspire to inflate food prices that disproportionally affects low-income families who spend a higher percentage of their household income on food.
By advocating for climate-smart school meals, we are simply saying on one hand, let’s make sure we cover as many of our vulnerable children as possible with a social safety net. On the other hand, we can use the demand side from school meals to drive resilience in our food systems, help farmers to adapt to extreme climatic conditions, for example switching from farming rice to millet, where appropriate, which needs 22 times less water.
We can use that demand to drive local procurement which will not only reduce the carbon footprint of shipping food halfway across the world, but will bring economic resilience to households that need it the most. We are promoting the need to support smallholder-farmers to strengthen conservation and rehabilitation practices around food production. Our aim is to build production and consumption patterns that are resilient, focused on nutrition, and inclusive of all groups of women and men. The discussion around climate finance is a big incentive for countries, and whatever we learn together with governments and other development partners, our aim is to see how this could feed into the Coalition. It should be considered by the larger family of countries because at the end of the day, if we want to move the needle at planetary scale, it’s not going to happen with a few countries; we must influence the whole family of countries at global level.
Q: What would you say to countries that choose to neglect school meals? What would be the cost of taking such a decision?
A: That would be a myopic decision!
We can learn from history, and we don’t have to go very far back to look at what happened in Syria following the three years of a climate-induced drought before the civil war. Due to drought, farmers left to look for work in cities but there was no work, discontentment grew, and it took one incident to set off what then became a civil war. While people were displaced in Syria, the World Food Programme spent one US dollar per day to feed one person and when they migrated to Germany, it cost the government USD 70 per day to provide all necessities such as housing, education, and other social assistance. We need to look at the effects that climate change can cause, and how hunger can bring long-term instability and a migration crisis. In the Coalition, we share these analyses and would like governments to always remember that prevention is more affordable than cure. School meal programmes are a stabilising factor. Science-based evidence does not lie, and in the case of school meals it’s telling us there are far-reaching socio-economic benefits countries can benefit from.