Donors should do more on school meals, says WFP

The World Food Program provides nutritious porridge for schoolchildren in the Mberra refugee camp in Mauritania. Photo by: ECHO /José Cendón / CC BY-NC-ND

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA — The World Food Programme plans to change the way its assisting governments in delivering school meals programs under a new 10-year strategy set to launch in 2020.

The U.N. program has been helping implement school meals programs globally for over half a century, the first being in Togo in 1963. And for many years since it started, it was reliant on food donations from donor governments.

But that’s no longer the case, at least not entirely. While the U.N. program still receives some food aid from overseas, it also now spends more than $1.6 billion buying food locally or in the surrounding region, said Valerie Guarnieri, WFP’s assistant executive director. It’s also using cash and vouchers as tools in its programs.

But the U.N. program also realized its assistance requires a “reboot.”

Single largest donor for school meals calls for better success metrics

The McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the single largest donor for school meals globally. But as the program faces increasing scrutiny back home, its director asks the sector to provide more evidence of success.

“This really came out of a sense from our country offices, that we were treating school meals like it was sort of something that we were just already doing well. We weren't investing in the learning. We weren't investing enough … to support governments,” Guarnieri told Devex in an exclusive interview during the 2019 Global Child Nutrition Forum.

WFP wants to capture more of the evidence of the benefits of school meals and its impacts beyond school attendance rates in general. Studies have underlined the potential benefits of school meal programs on children’s nutrition, on getting girls to school, and even in providing income opportunities in a community. At the forum, there were examples of countries whose decision to purchase food locally help open a market for their smallholder farmers, as well as create jobs for women, such as in preparing the food to be served to children.

WFP also wants to understand where it should focus its operations more. According to Guarnieri, there are 73 million children requiring school meals programs globally.

Under its upcoming strategy, the U.N. program divided countries under three categories, said Guarnieri. The first is countries in crisis facing large scale humanitarian needs, and where government capacity to implement school meals programs are low. The second is higher lower-income and middle-income countries where the situation is stable and the government has growing capacity to take on school meal programs by itself. The third is middle-income and higher-income countries where the government already has a program on school meals, with a policy and budget for it.

For the first category — countries in crisis — WFP aims to continue and scale-up the delivery of school meal programs. For those under the second category, or countries in more stable situations, WFP aims to focus on strengthening the governments’ capacity to manage and take ownership of school meal programs, while planning out WFP’s transition.

For countries in the third category, WFP said it plans to focus on providing on-demand technical assistance and learning. Sometimes governments ask the organization to model certain ways of providing school meals, Guarnieri said. WFP can bring lessons from that experience to other countries.

“The starting point becomes identifying where a country is and basically what typology best fits them, and where they want to go in terms of having a national school meals program. And then having the structure and system in place so that we can provide more demand-driven, more punctual support, rather than building a program and then trying to hand it over to the government,” Guarnieri said.

The WFP senior official said building a program and handing it over to governments doesn’t often work so well, especially as governments oftentimes have different ways of how they want to do their school meal programs.

School meal programs will ultimately be dependent on domestic resources, but for countries in crisis, WFP and other organizations delivering school meal programs will continue to rely on donors — both public and private — for support, Guarnieri said.

This can be a challenge given changing aid dynamics. While WFP has successfully mobilized about $8 billion this year for its work worldwide, Guarnieri said resources are often quite concentrated on a few specific contexts. More than 50% of the resources WFP was able to raise has gone to Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen.

“So on the one hand, you see large amounts, continued generosity in those crises countries. And on the other hand, you see programs like school meals programs going severely underfunded, particularly in situations that either where the crisis has been quite protracted, donors are getting a bit fatigued, or in contexts, they are moving out of crisis and more into development,” Guarnieri said.

The United States has been a huge source of aid for school meals worldwide, particularly through the U.S. Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, Guarnieri said. Canada is also re-emerging as an important player in the space, she said. Canada has recently announced contributions to WFP, UNICEF, and the U.N. Population Fund for an integrated health and nutrition program focusing on adolescent girls in Chad and Niger. Others such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Australia are also providing support to WFP for its school meals programs.

But Guarnieri said they are also looking at several traditional and emerging donors in the space to do more, such as the European Union, France, Middle Eastern countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as China.

“China has now established a specific development agency. We continue to see China growing as a donor, and we think we could see China growing also in the realm of school feeding or integrated school health and nutrition packages,” she said.

“I think most donors can do more and should do more on the public side. And we also see a real opportunity for more engagement from the private sector and individual givers on school meals programs,” she added.

The reporter traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia with support from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.