Healthy School Meals Vi­tal to a Healthy Na­tion

Traveling Minds - - Table Of Contents -

March 9 was In­ter­na­tional School Meals Day and was cel­e­brated around the world as a timely re­minder of the need to pro­mote healthy eat­ing habits for all chil­dren through sus­tain­able poli­cies, in­clud­ing sourc­ing or­ganic food from lo­cal fam­ily farm­ers.

Ev­ery day about 370 mil­lion chil­dren around the world are fed at school through school meals pro­grams that are run in vary­ing de­grees by na­tional gov­ern­ments.

Each pro­gram is dif­fer­ent: beans and rice in Mada­gas­car, spicy lentils in the Philippines, veg­etable pas­tries and fruits in Jor­dan... In some coun­tries it may be a healthy snack, or it can in­clude take-home food such as vi­ta­min A-en­riched oil for the whole fam­ily.

Glar­ing ex­cep­tions in­clude the United States and Canada and other cor­rupt rich na­tions where school food qual­ity is not just low but ex­tremely un­healthy and dis­ease-caus­ing. Hot dogs, ham­burg­ers, chicken ten­ders, meat loaf, bar­be­cue pork, ham and cheese, mac­a­roni and cheese, tater tots, cheese sticks and so on make up the school lunch menu in most North Amer­i­can schools. Some of the food is old sur­plus and shouldn’t be fed to any­one. Vir­tu­ally all of the food is con­tam­i­nated with pes­ti­cides, her­bi­cides, toxic chem­i­cals such as dioxin and PCBS and heavy met­als such as mer­cury. Soda ma­chines line the halls of many Amer­i­can schools, and the wa­ter in drink­ing foun­tains usu­ally con­tains flu­o­ride, proven to lower IQ and cause can­cer.

Stu­dents fed a healthy diet, of course, have fewer be­hav­ioral prob­lems and learn bet­ter. One of the most fa­mous ex­am­ples of this is the ex­pe­ri­ence of Wis­con­sin’s Ap­ple­ton Cen­tral Al­ter­na­tive Char­ter High School (ACA), which was cre­ated to help prob­lem stu­dents by pro­vid­ing them with a more nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment. The nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment ap­proach did not work be­cause the only food of­fered at school was junk from vend­ing ma­chines. Some kids re­ceived sack lunches through the Na­tional School Lunch Pro­gram, but the food was not much bet­ter than what came from the vend­ing ma­chines.

When ACA teamed up with Nat­u­ral Ovens Bak­ery to pro­vide the kids with health­ier food, it made all the dif­fer­ence and the worst kids soon be­came the best kids in the school dis­trict.

Just to be sure that it was the food mak­ing the dif­fer­ence, the school would have a junk food day once a year and found that go­ing back to the old diet im­me­di­ately im­pacted the kids in neg­a­tive ways and that even at­ten­dance the next day was re­duced. The stu­dents asked that the junk food day be dis­con­tin­ued.

A bad diet in child­hood usu­ally re­sults in un­healthy eat­ing habits in adult­hood and is one of the rea­sons why more than 25% of Amer­i­cans suf­fer from men­tal ill­ness and the United States has the high­est rate of in­car­cer­a­tion of any na­tion and the high­est crime rate of any rich na­tion.

Yet de­spite the fact that kids need healthy food to be healthy peo­ple, the U.S. fed­eral gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to push a junk food diet in schools while pre­tend­ing that it is healthy.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture specif­i­cally ex­cludes or­ganic food in its Women, In­fants and Chil­dren pro­gram for poor moth­ers. Its of­fi­cial pol­icy states “or­ganic food prod­ucts will not be al­lowed on a gen­eral ba­sis.”

For­tu­nately, not all na­tional gov­ern­ments are as evil and stupid as in the United States and the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO) of the United Na­tions is help­ing many other coun­tries en­sure that stu­dents re­ceive healthy food at school.

A gen­er­a­tion of well-nour­ished chil­dren

The FAO be­lieves that con­sis­tent global in­vest­ments in school meals will lead to a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren who de­velop healthy eat­ing habits and who ben­e­fit from a di­verse diet. Ul­ti­mately this ef­fort could con­trib­ute to achiev­ing the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goal of Zero Hunger.

The FAO sup­ports school meals in a range of ways, in­clud­ing tech­ni­cal sup­port to gov­ern­ments on sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture, food safety and stan­dards, sup­port to fam­ily farm­ers to grow sur­plus har­vests to sell to schools, pub­lic pro­cure­ment reg­u­la­tions, nu­tri­tional and food guide­lines and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tion ac­tiv­i­ties.

On the pol­icy front, the FAO is work­ing with gov­ern­ments and other part­ners to bring to­gether a range of sec­tors – such as health, ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial pro­tec­tion and agri­cul­ture – to for­mu­late com­pre­hen­sive and ef­fec­tive na­tional poli­cies that can be im­ple­mented in a gov­ern­ment-led set­ting.

This month, the FAO jointly pre­sented the Home Grown School Feed­ing Re­source Frame­work to­gether with part­ners in­clud­ing the World Food Pro­gramme. The frame­work sup­ports gov­ern­ments through the process of pol­icy for­mu­la­tion, im­ple­men­ta­tion and eval­u­a­tion of school meals pro­grams. It also brings to­gether the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise of dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers in a pro­gram­matic and co­her­ent way to be eas­ily ac­cessed by coun­tries re­quest­ing tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance.

Fam­ily farm­ers a link in the school meals sup­ply chain

In Africa, the Pur­chase from Africans for Africa (PAA Africa) pro­gram is mod­eled on Brazil’s achieve­ments in fight­ing hunger and poverty and is help­ing pro­mote lo­cal agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion and school meals.

The FAO pro­vides tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance for gov­ern­ments to pro­cure food for pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, such as schools, di­rectly from small-scale fam­ily farm­ers. FAO teams also work di­rectly with fam­ily farm­ers to help them achieve sus­tain­able gains in agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity as well as im­prove their har­vest­ing and post-har­vest tech­niques lead­ing to bet­ter qual­ity pro­duce and less loss and waste.

Dur­ing the pro­gram’s sec­ond phase, about 16,000 fam­ily farm­ers were able to sell 2,700 tons of food for school meals for around 37,000 stu­dents.

Help­ing chil­dren make healthy choices

The school is an ideal set­ting for teach­ing ba­sic skills in food, nu­tri­tion and health. In many com­mu­ni­ties, schools may be the only place where chil­dren ac­quire th­ese im­por­tant life skills.

Among many tools, grow­ing and pre­par­ing gar­den food at school can be in­stru­men­tal. Com­bined with di­ver­si­fied school meals and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tion, it in­creases chil­dren’s pref­er­ences for fruits and veg­eta­bles. This food and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tion is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment in the preven­tion and con­trol of diet-re­lated health prob­lems. For this rea­son, the FAO pro­vides tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance for in­te­grat­ing food and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tion in the pri­mary school cur­ricu­lum.

The FAO also sup­ports schools to en­sure that all foods, meals and snacks avail­able at school are nu­tri­tion­ally ad­e­quate and ap­pro­pri­ate for the school-age child.

Case study: Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean

In 2009, a school feed­ing pro­gram based on the Na­tional School Feed­ing Pro­gramme of Brazil was launched in Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean. Through in­ter-sec­toral pol­icy and le­gal mech­a­nisms, it de­vel­oped ac­tions for food and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tion and en­cour­aged pur­chases for the pro­grams to be made from lo­cal farm­ing fam­i­lies. In 2013, a study con­ducted in eight of the par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries, sur­vey­ing a ter­ri­tory en­com­pass­ing 18 mil­lion stu­dents, showed that the pro­grams not only pro­mote school at­ten­dance and bol­ster the learn­ing process but also in­crease the in­come of the com­mu­nity’s farm­ers.

Case study: Cape Verde

In Cape Verde, the school meals pro­gram was in­tro­duced by the UN in 1979, and the gov­ern­ment took own­er­ship in 2010. Since then, the FAO has worked with the gov­ern­ment and other UN agen­cies to di­ver­sify the school meals by link­ing lo­cal farm­ers to the pro­cure­ment process to in­crease the sup­ply of lo­cal fruits, veg­eta­bles, beans and fish to school can­teens. About 9,000 pri­mary school stu­dents ben­e­fited from this ini­tia­tive, as did lo­cal farm­ers and fish­ers who had an as­sured mar­ket.

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