As the world grapples with the worst hunger crisis in recent history, due in large part to rising food insecurity triggered by extreme climate-related weather events, the Research Consortium has spent the past year looking into the potential impacts of planet-friendly approaches to school meal programmes on both human and planetary health.
By engaging more than 160 global food systems transformation experts, the Research Consortium has drafted an evidence-led White Paper titled “School Meals and Food Systems: Rethinking the consequences for climate, environment, biodiversity, and food sovereignty”. In this interview with WFP Deputy Executive Director, Valerie Guarnieri, at the School Meals Coalition Global Summit in October 2023, the Research Consortium Director, Professor Donald Bundy discusses the background to the paper and what it tells us about the role of school meals in powering transformation towards healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food systems globally.
The Research Consortium has been working on the White Paper for the past year. Can you tell us what it is all about?
In recent years, the concept of ‘homegrown school feeding’, which aims to link school feeding programmes with smallholder farmers to improve both the nutritional value and local economic impact of school meals, has become increasingly topical. Over time, we have also seen a rising interest in the environmental impact of food systems generally, alongside increasing focus on food sovereignty, which is where the people who produce, distribute, and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of production and distribution. Discussions have also highlighted issues around agro-ecology and climate change, and all these build into the same picture.
This is the picture that was first discussed at the first School Meals Coalition Ministerial Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, and we felt it would be worth revisiting. We initiated a thought piece, a White Paper for the Paris Summit. It is an evolving process, so we brought the White Paper in its current form to Paris to stimulate further discussions on school meals and food systems.
A lot of thinking and work has already gone into the White Paper, can you tell us how the Research Consortium is working, and the actors involved in developing this resource?
The Research Consortium operates as a global network of partnerships around school meals, bringing together leading experts from countries and contexts all over the world. The newly announced co-chair of the School Meals Coalition, Brazil, spoke at the Coalition Summit about how the country really invests in engagement with multiple stakeholders when it comes to designing its school meals programme, and we believe that is the way to go. One of the ways we do this is by setting up global Communities of Practice, linking experts around a single issue relating to school meals. We have created a Community of Practice called Diet and Food Systems to lead on this school meals and food systems topic.
Our engagement efforts have grown, and this means our dialogue footprint is also expanding. There are 85 institutions comprising 160 academics and scholars that have contributed to the development of this White Paper, which remains a work in progress. During earlier discussions, we thought it was very important to do some mathematical modelling to help understand the potential scale of the impact of planet-friendly approaches school meals. We took the example of the Lancet Commission on food, and for the first time, we focused on school-age children and adolescents, with modelling support from the Lancet Commission. We took all of this for discussion at various events and meetings, including the Hidden Hunger Global Congress at the University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany. This was among a very few nutrition events which focused entirely on school meals. It produced a declaration from the nutritionists on the importance of school meals in various contexts. Other events that fed into the White Paper development process are the Power of Multi-Sector Approaches for Human Capital Development event in Brazil; the ECOWAS Regional Technical Conference on Homegrown School Feeding conference; and the Research Consortium’s Annual Showcase which facilitated a discussion on the white paper by over 700 academics across more than 70 countries worldwide. In all these discussions, one very key point came out: that the school health community, governments, and school meals programmes have a unique role to play in changing food systems globally.
What were some of the emerging findings on the role of governments in using school meals to transform their food systems?
The reason that school meals systems have the potential to play such an important role in food systems transformation is because they represent about 70 percent of all the public food delivered by government. Therefore, governments hold the policy levers to make significant change at scale when it comes to the health and sustainability of school meals, which is a huge part of the picture. The other component is that while we talk about school meals being a USD 48 billion global industry, we need to recognize that the vast majority of these costs are financed through domestic funding – they are paid for by the governments. Again, this means that governments hold the control of these processes and have the ability to make big changes.
In the White Paper, we identified two keyways in which change can be brought about: first is that governments can help children become agents of change. This is again governments holding the policy levers, and we know that decisions made now can quickly change the kind of food that children eat for the rest of their lives. With the right food education, schools provide a platform that can influence their behaviour and that of the next generations. This has big health impacts looking at the problem of non-communicable disease in middle age. Quite frankly, it’s one of the most effective ways of addressing obesity which is the one of the biggest epidemics in the world today.
The second huge piece is that of policy change, which can have more long-term impact because it empowers governments to initiate change in agricultural practices by creating a demand for a more sustainable way of growing food. Policy is about what the government asks for to shape the food system. That affects the way food is procured, ensuring it’s more appropriate to indigenous demand, more nutrition sensitive, and that the delivery mechanisms are promoting local farmers and the interests of the consumers. There are some countries moving along that road already and making good progress, such as Brazil, India, and Germany.
What priority areas has the White Paper identified which require more discussion to find better solutions?
The first priority is around menu changes in schools to meet dietary expectations and transform children’s behaviour to be more nutrition sensitive. The models show that even quite subtle changes to the menu, for example something some people call “flexitarian”, which is less meat and more fish and plant-based products, can have a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions, around a 30 percent reduction, and yet remain acceptable to the children. The school meals menu policy changes are crucial, but need to be done in the right way, and one of the ways to approach this is to use school meal menu planning tools that can help governments to plan better.
The second big policy area we need to discuss more is on energy, emphasizing a shift to clean and efficient energy in terms of cooking methods. In many African schools, food is still being cooked on open fires, so a switch to more efficient stoves would have very significant advantages in terms of fuel efficiency. This will reduce deforestation and environmental degradation, and importantly ensure health benefits for the caterers in terms of working in an environment with clean air.
The third area is food waste, and it’s extraordinary to me that today a third of the world’s food is wasted. If kitchens could halve their wastage, then that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 12 percent overall, which would make a big difference. We need to get this waste issue right, and this also includes single-use plastics as part of the problem.
Finally, as I mentioned before, we need to continue discussions around the role of food education, recognising that school-age children will eventually grow up to become adults, and the dietary habits they pick up at school will likely shape their relationship with food for the rest of their lives.
About the Research Consortium
The Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition is one of three initiatives of the School Meals Coalition, established to build the global evidence base on the benefits of school meals on children’s health, wellbeing, and education.