More kids fed when school meals are national budget item, report finds

Students receive snacks at a school in Nepal. Photo by: Kelley Lynch / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

Including school meal programs as a line item in national budgets can help larger numbers of children get fed, according to a new report from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation.

The report found a correlation between the line items and number of children served. Sixty-six of the 83 countries surveyed include a line item for school meal programs in their national budgets, 65% of which were low-income.

 In countries without a line item, only 15% of primary and secondary school-age children were fed at school. In countries that did include the programs as a line item, 25% of children received meals at school.

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

Arlene Mitchell, executive director at GCNF, said levels of funding for school meal programs coming directly from governments can vary widely because the World Food Programme and NGOs often fund and implement them in low-income countries. Transitioning these programs to government control and national funding poses challenges, she said, particularly with budgeting.

The largest international school meal program effort, the U.S. McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, funds U.S.-based NGOs. It does not provide money directly to governments.

“It makes it challenging, but nonetheless important, for the nonprofits to work with national governments where they’re implementing the programs to help them figure out a way to take over,” Mitchell said. “It is difficult, though, to go from being entirely externally funded to being totally nationally funded.”

GCNF conducted the survey, the first of its kind, to obtain better data about school meal programs around the world. Such programs are often the only meal a child may eat during the day and can provide more nutritious food than they may get at home. Countries were asked a series of questions about their school meal activities for an entire school year, which ranged from 2017 to 2019 depending on the national school calendar.

The report does not provide information on the impact COVID-19 has had on programs, as countries and NGOs have had to figure out how to feed children while schools are closed.

The goal, Mitchell said, is to build a centralized database to help provide information for countries that are starting school meal programs and want to learn from existing best practices, particularly regarding how to make programs sustainable.

In responding to the GCNF survey, Mitchell said many governments realized they did not know the programmatic and cost details of various school meal programs in their countries because they were often run by multiple organizations.

“It does make it harder for governments to take charge, if you will, if there are multiple players working in different ways within the same country. But that has led some countries to establish coordinating mechanisms, which can be helpful,” Mitchell said. “That, I think, helps, but it poses conundrums about how do you then take over the management of programs — even if you're contributing funding or resources to the program — if it’s two or three different programs and they’re all a bit different. Then bringing that under an umbrella is challenging.”

“We talk about school feeding as a structured demand, where governments can actually structure the program’s needs particularly for nutritious, local foods.”

— Arlene Mitchell, executive director, Global Child Nutrition Foundation

The report found that school meal programs can have a transformative impact on food systems by supporting local procurement and nutrition-sensitive supply chains, encouraging nutritious diets and instilling lifelong healthy habits.

Nearly all countries surveyed — 93% — said their school meal programs were designed to meet educational goals, such as ensuring children enroll and attend school. 88% said their programs also had nutrition goals, and 73% aimed to be a social safety net. Only 35% said they had agriculture goals.

Tying school meals to local agriculture has been key to convincing governments to spend their own money on the school-based programs, Mitchell said. Buying from farmers supports local supply chains and allows countries to view the spending as broader economic development, rather than a giveaway program, she said.

“One thing that poor farmers struggle with in commercial markets, in particular, is that they’re quite fickle. So there might be a big demand for your crop this year and then next year there’s glut and the demand goes away or the prices drop significantly,” Mitchell said.

“We talk about school feeding as a structured demand, where governments can actually structure the program’s needs particularly for nutritious, local foods,” she said. “They can structure the program and make it very predictable for farmers so that even if prices on the commercial market fluctuate, they know that there’s going to be at least this much demand for that product … It makes it worth the investment.”

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.