Sounding the drumbeat on International Day of School Feeding: Why home-grown school feeding is a global game changer for children and food systems

By Mohamed Abdiweli Ahmed and Leslie Crosdale, WFP Advocacy Team

“There is a virus killing our children. Its name is hunger, and the vaccine is food. Governments and other stakeholders should help mitigate hunger now.” With these powerful words Sarah Anyang Agbor sounded the alarm on how COVID-19 school closures are threatening progress it’s taken a decade to achieve, at the sixth annual Africa Day of School Feeding last week — she is commissioner for education, science, technology and innovation at the African Union which convened the online event with the World Food Programme.

Before the pandemic, school feeding was the most extensive social safety net globally, with one in every two schoolchildren receiving school meals every day from national programmes. According to the recently released AU Biennial Report on Home-Grown School Feeding, 65.4 million children across Africa received school meals in 2019 — a staggering 71 percent increase from 38.4 million in 2013.

This reflected the understanding that, by feeding the potential of young generations, school meals are a smart investment in any nation’s human capital development efforts. As noted by Dr. Martha Phiri, Director of Human Capital, Youth and Skills Development at the African Development Bank, to achieve transformational results in key areas like agriculture, industrialization or even expanding job markets, “we need a healthy, productive and innovative workforce. And we know that nutrition — especially from a young age — is critical for building these types of workforces.”

But with schools closed, the progress made is at risk of being reversed. Even before the pandemic, 60 million vulnerable children did not have access to meals at school. Then, in April 2020, 50 million children lost access to school meals due to school closures. The stakes couldn’t be higher as many children, especially girls, risk never returning to the classroom.

Home-grown school feeding as a food systems game changer

The ongoing pandemic doesn’t only threaten millions of children across Africa and the world. It has also exposed the fragility of food systems and everyone who lives and works around them. Challenges such as the banning of foreign trucks, reductions in flights, hygiene and sanitation measures, mandatory quarantine periods for border crossings affected food supply routes. The ensuing crisis has highlighted the need to reshape food systems to build back more resilient and inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and economically vibrant communities. School feeding can be part of this process.

Using food grown locally to prepare school meals — a model known as “home-grown school feeding”– can provide smallholder farmers, and in particularly women, who produce up to 60 percent of food consumed in Africa, with access to a reliable outlet for their products. Not only does this boost local economies and support rural development: as explained by Dr Phiri, it can even lead to greater participation of local farmers in the food industry by bolstering local agricultural production both for local consumption and export. Typically, Africa’s agribusiness sector has low levels of value addition. Home-grown school feeding programmes — if well designed — provide local businesses with an opportunity to add said value, and as such, catalyse the development of domestic value chains, ultimately creating jobs for youth and women.

Time and time again, the African Union has recognized the potential for home-grown school feeding to help operationalize “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want”, the continental development strategy. However, implementation is not yet systematic across the continent, and several challenges remain in ensuring multi-sectoral coordination and sufficient funding. Actions agreed to address the grave consequences of this for children, farmers, business owners and everyone along the value chain, include ensuring the safe reopening of schools with access to school feeding restored as an urgent priority in pandemic recovery plans; increasing financial and technical assistance to the scale-up of home-grown school feeding programmes; and joint funding and implementation arrangements between relevant ministries, departments and agencies to bring life existing policies.

A seat at the Food Systems Summit table

Considering the potential of home-grown school feeding to strengthen food systems, this approach is a critical priority for the upcoming UN Food System Summit.

Home grown school feeding programmes are a game changer for the entire food system and have a direct impact on the five Summit Action Tracks. These programmes ensure that school-age children have access to safe and nutritious food, and they also facilitate a shift to sustainable consumption patterns as schools are able to procure food produced in the vicinity, and children can develop healthy and affordable eating habits, based on indigenous produce. Home grown school feeding programmes can also boost nature-positive production by shortening food chains and minimizing food waste, the largest single preventable cause of carbon emissions. In addition, they advance equitable livelihoods by improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and providing employment opportunities in the preparation of meals. Finally, they build resilience by providing essential support for the health and nutrition of vulnerable school-age children –across the world, a meal received in school is often the only nutritious meal they eat. Moreover, some of the most vulnerable smallholder farmers gain access to a reliable and predictable markets for their products.

As stakeholders contemplate how to transform the way food systems function in the lead up to the Summit, they should heed the words of AU Commissioner for Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment, Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko who on annual African Day of School Feeding said: “School feeding, when correctly implemented, is a game changer for everyone in the value chain, including the primary beneficiary — school-age children, particularly girls, who become healthy and better educated, farmers who are assured of a stable market, women and the community as a whole.”

As an advocate and implementer of home-grown school feeding in Africa and across the world, the World Food Programme (WFP) is looking forward to engaging with other interested parties to activate this powerful tool to build stronger, more resilient and more just food systems.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

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