Healthy School Meals Vital to a Healthy Nation
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.