How to build effective and sustainable National School Meals programmes.

World Food Programme
World Food Programme Insight
10 min readSep 6, 2016


In a speech delivered to the 2016 Global Child Nutrition Forum, the World Food Programme’s Executive Director Ertharin Cousin argues that school meals can achieve much more than full bellies: when integrated into comprehensive education programmes, school meals can fuel educational opportunities, social protection, gender empowerment and economic growth.

Top Right: A student in Bolivia beams during school mealtime. Photo: WFP/Boris Heger. Bottom Left: In El Salvador, children wash their hands before their school meal. Photo: WFP/Claudia Rivera. Bottom Right: In Haiti, school meals provide an incentive for teenage girls to go to school. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud.

In the past year alone, WFP school meals programmes have served over 17 million children with nutritious food. This work is essential and will continue. I admit we must do more and we will do better, if we expect to build more effective and sustainable school meals programmes.

As a step towards achieving this goal, this year’s Forum is an opportunity for us, collectively, to scrutinise how we engage with government, and just as importantly, work with education partners, to deliver, not just school meals programmes, but comprehensive and integrated education programmes.

Of course our first priority is always to fight hunger among the poorest children. In too many places around the globe, school meals still too often represent the only meal a hungry child receives. But to provide full value school meals must not operate in a vacuum.

Instead, they are an indispensable component of an overarching strategy to confront the causes of educational disadvantage. They also represent a potential dependable market for smallholder farmers. To view them merely as a solution to undernourishment and malnutrition is to gravely underestimate their impact.

Let us consider for a moment the principal barriers to educational opportunity that stand in the way of the world’s poorest children. Hunger, of course. But also social disenfranchisement. Gender discrimination. Conflict. Poverty.

All these issues represent hugely complex structural challenges which require a coordinated policy response. In each case, school meals programmes should serve as an essential component of the education equation. There is a clear body of evidence which demonstrates that school meals operate as an effective pull factor, drawing the child into the classroom. When properly aligned with education programmes, adequately nourished children will learn and thrive.

So today, I stand before you in the spirit of collaboration. WFP is ready to engage in strategic partnerships with all the different agencies, and with government, to help deliver a comprehensive education programme. This means national governments, private sector companies and the full spectrum of education organisations.

School meals underpin educational outcomes

Children require sufficient nutrition to think, learn and grow intellectually. So school meals are the bedrock of educational opportunity for the poorest children, ensuring they are able to concentrate and learn, and a vital complement to the work performed by education providers.

Evidence from a number of studies clearly demonstrates that school meals help boost performance and cognitive ability. One global review found that children benefiting from school meals programmes and adequate education provision moved up in the student rankings by 7 to 12 percentiles.

These improvements have a significant lifelong impact. More educated young people grow up to become more empowered adults. Higher levels of education are not only linked to higher earnings, but also to healthier, longer, more productive lives. And these benefits are passed on from mother to child.

Integrated schemes are also an opportunity to dismantle barriers to learning. Children require trained teachers, safe classrooms and access to school books. The lesson is simple. If we assemble the appropriate coalition of partners at the outset, we maximize the chance of creating a learning environment that allows every child to thrive.

Right: At Ampalpuran School in northern Sri Lanka, mothers volunteer to help prepare the daily school meal. Photo: WFP/ NguyenDuc Hoang

School meals essential to social integration and gender empowerment

We also know that educational opportunity is decisively determined by a child’s social inheritance. If we consider that school meal programmes are the most widespread and common social safety net in the world, the scale of the opportunity becomes clear.

By providing the poorest children with the catalyst to attend and stay in school, when aligned properly, the programmes open up an access channel for a range of other professionals.

In many instances, school meals serve as a means of spreading greater knowledge about health, hygiene, nutrition and food preparation.

Or — even more, as in the national programme set up by the Tunisian government to address the challenge of extremism. This programme is designed to reach 240,000 children in 2,500 schools — the programme partners not just with educators, but also with other relevant professionals, who communicate with, coach and encourage the children. Working together through the programme and striving to educate and combat radicalisation, while fostering social stability and inclusion.

Even today in too many places one of the most intractable and multi-faceted social challenges remains gender discrimination.

A girl on her way to school in Yemen. School meals are an effective tool for achieving gender equality. Photo: WFP/Micah Albert.

If we are to achieve our shared goal of effective and sustainable school meals programmes we must overcome the gender discrimination challenge. School meals are an effective tool in the Achieving Gender Equity tool box.

Just one example: in Malawi, an innovative joint initiative between the Government, WFP and our colleagues at UNICEF and the UNFPA is underway. The programme, built around the provision of school meals as an incentive, has been designed specifically to tackle the social barriers preventing girls from attending school or the barriers which cause them to stop attending school. These complex issues range from a lack of food to violations of girls’ reproductive rights. The programme works to address each issue.

In this programme, school meals give poor families a powerful incentive to keep their daughters in school. The programme acts as a gateway, because once they are in school, education and health professionals offer specialist support to girls facing, not just undernourishment challenges, but also the challenges of understanding their reproductive rights and their health choices.

Even before the launch of the joint initiative, girls served by WFP school meals programmes in Malawi had a school drop-out rate 10% lower than the national average — and their graduation rate from primary to secondary school was 7% higher.

Now with this joint initiative, early indications suggest the joint project is increasing attendance rates further and succeeding in getting teenage mothers back into education. The joint programme results build on existing evidence which conclusively demonstrates that giving girls and young women an education empowers them to escape poverty and discrimination.

For girls, a single year of secondary education equates to a 25% increase in wages later in life.

Further, the evidence demonstrates that a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5. And one extra year of schooling for girls reduces infant mortality rates among their children by up to 10%.

Educating girls is undoubtedly the way to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and discrimination. The Malawi model, founded on a strong partnership between government, humanitarian and education partners, provides a template for action. Now it needs to become the mainstream.

School meals essential for education access in emergencies

I have focused my remarks thus far on the ability of school meals programmes to bolster educational attainment, and create access channels for diverse groups of professionals to reach vulnerable children and their families.

But school meals programmes have also proved their value in the most challenging and complex environments of all: in the aftermath of emergencies and during protracted crises. In these settings, when inevitably the emphasis is on meeting basic life-saving needs, school meals have successfully met the basic hunger needs of children affected by disaster or crisis, while getting children back into the classroom.

By doing so, even in informal education settings, these programmes have been instrumental in protecting the educational futures of some of the most vulnerable children in the world. Encouraging attendance. Providing some sense of normality in traumatic circumstances. And helping to keep alive a sense of hope.

Right: In Madagascar, the El Nino-related drought has ruined crops and pushed farming families further into hardship. School meals are a guaranteed daily meal for many children in affected families. Photo: WFP/Anna Yla Kautaa

Nonetheless, right now, 75 million children in 35 crisis-hit countries are being deprived of their right to an education. In a crisis setting, an integrated education strategy that includes provision for school meals can help put an end to this deprivation and provide the bridge between humanitarian intervention and an education development outcome. Providing the potential opportunity for a better future.

Home Grown School Meals

At the beginning of my remarks I highlighted poverty as the other major structural barrier to educational opportunity. A coherent and effective education policy must therefore recognise that educational disadvantage is intimately linked to economic exclusion.

Connecting school meals programmes with support for local smallholder farmers provides farmers with an identifiable, potentially sustainable market, helping counteract these supply chain constraints, and multiply the positive potential and impact of both school meals programmes and agriculture food system improvement programmes.

The Home Grown School Meals initiative, which has received strong backing from the African Union, points the way forward. Farmers and local businesses benefit from school-driven market demand. And children benefit from eating culturally diverse, familiar, nutritious, locally grown foods.

This integrated approach not only strengthens local markets, it also boosts growth and delivers significant benefits for communities and national economies.

It is clear that school meals integrated into comprehensive education programmes have the ability to unleash potential — in terms of new educational opportunities, social protection, gender empowerment and economic growth through agricultural value chain improvements.

Effective collaboration is essential if we are to realise gains.

The World Food Programme is committed to partnering with governments and communities to design comprehensive school meals programmes that not only serve each country’s needs but respect the national context. Moving where appropriate from implementation to capacity development and support. Programmes that are integrated into national education and social protection systems. And which give schools the support packages required to improve the lives of their students.

And we will align our programmes with education and other partners to use school meals as a launch-pad to reach demanding education objectives. Building capacity, harnessing expertise, and making the case for investment in young people.

Is it working? Since 2014, 34 countries have undertaken a SABER diagnostic test. The SABER process examines how well school meals programmes are integrated into national systems of education, nutrition, health, agriculture and social protection. It also assesses how strongly these systems support school meals.

Developed by WFP in alliance with the World Bank, SABER provides a benchmark for analysing and evaluating progress and outcomes. WFP stands ready to support other nations through the SABER assessment.

Context is crucial when designing programmes. As a result, the services WFP provides vary from country to country, depending on each nation’s particular needs. In some countries, WFP helps build community resilience, particularly smallholder resilience, while strengthening national food systems. In other countries, WFP also helps governments and communities develop their own capacity in areas of proven WFP strength. To evaluate the effectiveness and value of our work, WFP, in every country, monitors and tracks outcomes on the ground.

But wherever we serve, and however we serve, WFP is committed to putting our unique capabilities to work. We must draw together the necessary ingredients for programmes that deliver the tangible, quantifiable outcomes we all want to see and that children deserve — whether living through crisis, overcoming a natural disaster, suffering from long-term displacement or suffering from poverty in an otherwise stable country. Or even those poor, too oftentimes vulnerable but tough, children living in an emerging or middle income country. A future free of hunger and full of learning for all our children. That’s our goal.

From Angola, to Yemen to India, school meals contribute to a future free of hunger and full of learning for all our children. Photo (left to right): WFP/Neil Brander, WFP/Aditya Arya, WFP; Micah Albert.

Each one of us here today understands that school meals programmes are often the route into education for those children left furthest behind.

And once the child is in school, we know school meals are the spark igniting the engines of a child prepared to seize educational opportunity which will create social progress.

So as leaders, our responsibility is to not just nod our heads in agreement, but embrace the opportunity to create ever better school meals programmes. To proselytize, and share the knowledge of how investing in good school meals programmes can leverage education, social, gender, agricultural development and even poverty alleviation programmes when adequately aligned with education partners, government and the private sector.

We must explain to our partners and our supporters how an investment in school meals programmes produces results which enable children to learn, communities to flourish and countries to prosper.

We must demonstrate how school meals reach those furthest behind and give them an education. How school meals empower girls to expect equality. How school meals support local economies for the benefit of everyone.

We must think bigger, set our sights higher, work harder — and work together. If we do, we will create better funded, sustainable and more effective programmes. Programmes which will help transform the lives of millions of the planet’s poorest, toughest and yet most vulnerable children.

Not just feeding them for a day — but fuelling their ambitions for a lifetime.

Let us fulfil that responsibility to the next generation, starting here in Yerevan today.

Trimmed transcript of a speech delivered by Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, at the 2016 Global Child Nutrition Forum in Yerevan, Armenia, on 5 September, 2016.



World Food Programme
World Food Programme Insight

The United Nations World Food Programme works towards a world of Zero Hunger.