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School feeding: Challenges, Trends and Opportunities

School feeding programmes are the most extensive social safety net worldwide and increasingly seen as a lever to not only achieve children’s human rights to food, education and health but also transform food systems more holistically.

by Samuel Wairimu | 2022-02-08

School feeding: Challenges, Trends and Opportunities

Globally, school feeding programmes have become the most extensive social safety net according to WFP’s State of School Feeding Worldwide 2020 report. As of 2020, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 388 million school children - or one in every two children - were receiving school meals in 161 countries. A survey by the Global Child Nutrition Foundation found that school feeding expanded in Africa from benefitting 38.4 million children in 2013 to 65.4 million in 2019. Currently, the largest school feeding programmes on the continent are found in Egypt (11.2 million), Nigeria (9.8 million), South Africa (9.2 million) and Burkina Faso (3.9 million). School feeding schemes designed to source food from local farmers and traders are referred to as Home-Grown School Feeding (HGSF)  programmes.  

The African Union has been promoting the HGSF model among its member states as it presents a pathway to meet the SDGs and Africa’s Agenda 2063 in multiple sectors such as education, nutrition, health, gender equality, agriculture, and local development. Recognising the importance of school feeding as an instrument of development, African Heads of State and Government set the 1st of March to be the African Day of School Feeding in 2016. The 6th commemoration took place in 2021 under the theme ‘Harnessing Africa's Traditional Knowledge and Food to Support Home-Grown School Feeding Programmes and Systems During COVID-19 Response and Beyond’ with the objectives of monitoring progress, promoting dietary diversity, sharing knowledge and good practices, and supporting member states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Challenges and future trends 

Despite the progress in school feeding on the African continent, there are still numerous challenges that limit the efficiency and effectiveness of these programmes. One of the main challenges found in different countries is the targeting of the most vulnerable students. For instance, the targeting guidelines in South Africa’s National School Nutrition Programmes (NSNP) exclude needy children in schools located in wealthy areas, exposing them to hunger and malnutrition.  Burkina Faso and Kenya on the other hand do not have any functional state school feeding programmes in urban informal settlements. The delivery of school meals was moreover affected by the closure of schools to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and although some governments adapted to alternative means such as home deliveries, they were limited in scope. 

School gardens’ role in delivering school meals need to be further and critically explored. Innovative food production systems in controlled environments are particularly interesting for urban areas where resources such as soil and water may be limited or contaminated. The transition to HGSF needs to be well planned and executed to avoid disruptions in delivery of school meals. This also calls for establishing the context under which HGSF can work and how to implement it in areas with seasonality in food production and those with little or no potential for agricultural production. There are other emerging models of school feeding by non-profit organisations. A notable initiative is Food4Education in Kenya, which sources food from local farmers that is then prepared in central kitchens and distributed in trucks to the schools.  

The School Meals Coalition 

In 2020, some governments (67 as of January 2022), universities, civil society, relevant UN agencies, and development partners came together in the lead up to the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) under the umbrella School Meals Coalition. Their goal is to restore school meals to the over 370 million learners affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and those 70 million children who were already excluded. The coalition argues that school meals, especially when modelled around HGSF, benefit not only the children but also their communities, contributing to multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Additionally, by linking agriculture, nutrition, and social protection through targeted procurement of local, nutritious, and indigenous food products HGSF can benefit small scale  producers and traders while preserving the local food culture and biodiversity. As such, the Coalition views school feeding as an entry point to transform food systems while also improving health, nutrition, and education outcomes, and development of local agriculture. 

School feeding as a lever to holistically transform food systems 

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the limitations of school feeding programmes in addressing the nutritional needs of pupils in Africa. However, the pandemic also presents an opportunity to redesign school feeding to address existing challenges and further embed school feeding in local food systems. Doing so can address food insecurity in a more systematic way to achieve the right to food and contribute to community development. This resonates with TMG's Urban Food Futures vision of school feeding in cities as urban nutrition hubs with the potential to address wider problems in urban food systems beyond school meals. Together with our partners in the Cape Town, Nairobi, and Ouagadougou, we explore how such transformations can be realised and sustained. 

Photo credits Muungano wa Wanavijiji.

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