Can school meals be as good for smallholder farmers as they are for children?

School Cooks in Ghana

In an already busy international calendar the inaugural International School Meals Day on 8th March provides an important reminder of how school feeding programmes can improve the lives of both school-children and farmers alike.

The International School Meals Day is a new UK/US lead initiative designed to raise awareness of the importance of food and nutrition to education and share school feeding experiences from across the globe.  In this spirit of sharing global experiences it is worth examining a government-led movement in sub-Saharan Africa which is developing sustainable school feeding programmes which have the potential to increase access to education whilst at the same time combating food security and improving agricultural production.

The G8’s focus on food security and nutrition and creation of initiatives such as the UN’s Education First are important steps forward but with around 60 million children in the developing world still going to school hungry everyday - 40% of them in Africa, a concerted multi-sectoral approach is necessary.

Simply put children that don’t eat don’t learn. As shown in Rethinking School Feeding, a joint analysis conducted by the World BankWorld Food Programme and Partnership for Child Development, hunger restricts education. Studies conducted in Jamaica and Bangladeshi showed that students not fed in school had lower maths scores, nonverbal reasoning scores in Kenya were lower in schools without school meal.

In these same communities where over two-thirds of the population make their living in agriculture, smallholder farmers, often unable to reach a market, struggle to make a living selling their food.

The solution is clear: local food for local children. From this, a new African-led movement, known as ‘Home Grown School Feeding’ (HGSF) is beginning to take hold.

Home Grown School Feeding programmes provide an opportunity to benefit both schoolchildren and smallholder farmers by creating a stable, structured market for local produce. The advantages of linking local agriculture and school feeding are substantial: more prosperous smallholder farmers, with a more secure future; stronger rural communities, with more stable economies; increased demand for local, fresh food; and healthier, happier children.

The concept behind HGSF programmes is by no means restricted to the developing world, in Scotland councils such as East Ayrshire run tendering processes which link school meals with local farmers.  Brazil have placed so much importance to the issue of local procurement that it is actually written into the country’s constitution that at least 30% of the food for school meals has to be procured from local farmers. The challenge is to take these lessons learnt and support governments to adapt them to local context

Over the past decade, HGSF programmes in sub-Saharan Africa have been driven by national governments. In 2003, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) of the African Union launched a pilot HGSF and Health Programme. That same year, African governments included locally sourced school feeding programmes in NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme

An example of a successful African HGSF programme is provided by the Ghana School Feeding Programmes. Launched by former President John Kufuor in 2005, the programme has progressively grown to feed over 1.4 million children across 4,500 schools. As a strategy to reach hungry school children, increase domestic food production, household incomes and food security in deprived communities the GSFP has become a very popular programme with the Ghanaian public, and enjoys solid commitment from the government.

On the impact that the GSFP has had on the country President Kufuor said

'The policy to procure local foods [for school feeding] has set in motion a cycle were the smallholder farmer is ensured a solid market for their produce thereby enriching their income, and those who make up the school feeding supply chain. This has had a great impact on the economy of Ghana.'

‘We are talking of the future of our children when we talk of school feeding programmes.’

HGSF has already delivered strong development outcomes, but there are still several important gaps in our current knowledge about the effectiveness of HGSF in areas such as the nutritional impact of using local foods, entrepreneurial opportunities across the supply chain, and income gain for smallholder farmers. Development groups such as the World Bank, WFP and PCD are working with governments to build the evidence base around what works and how best to support the development of sustainable nationally owned school feeding programmes.

The fact that International School Meals Day is also the International Women’s day is fitting for HGSF programmes have the potential to be especially beneficial women, improving girl’s access to school and the incomes of the women who make up 70% of the smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

By bringing together the agriculture, health and education sectors Home Grown School Feeding programmes perhaps provides the link between the work of the UK’s last two occupants of 10 Downing Street namely the Gordon Brown led $1.5billion Education First initiative with its focus on breaking down barriers to education and the David Cameron chairing of the G8 and its $22bn commitment to raise 50 million people out of poverty and food insecurity.

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