Fulfilling youth potential: why school meals are important

School children getting school dinners

Ioana Vlad and Magdalena Wetzel from the Policy and Public Affairs team take a deeper look into the issue of school meals and how school food programmes can deliver healthy diets to young people around the world.

Chatting over a Zoom-coffee, we recently shared our experiences of how the school food environments in our very different home countries of Romania and Argentina had moulded our choices on what to eat and when. One of us recalled how, for a considerable period of time, a slice of pizza from the newly opened, universally popular, fast‐food place across the street replaced breakfast!

For both of us, the food offered in and around our schools determined our eating habits. Looking back, we realised we’d both experienced periods of change that brought more and more junk food into our schools.

School closures and healthy diets

School meal programmes can play a crucial role in ensuring that all children, regardless of where they live, can eat healthy and nutritious foods — which in turn supports their ability to learn. School meal programmes are uniquely placed to address both undernutrition, overweight and obesity by promoting healthy diets.

We know that diet has an impact on children’s physical and mental health as well as their food habits — which can carry over into adulthood whether healthy or not, showing how important a healthy diet at an early age is.

At the start of 2020, school meal programmes were delivering food to more children than at any time in history. As schools across the world were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a stark reminder that they are not only an educational space, but also a source of much-needed meals for millions of children worldwide, especially when families struggle to make ends meet. Without government support, children could go hungry or be unable to access healthy foods.

School meal programmes: feeding v nourishing

Across the world, there are a range of school meal programme models. For example, in Brazil and Finland governments have invested in school food programmes for all children, regardless of their socio-economic background. Other governments, like in England, use a model that targets only the most vulnerable children.

Given the obvious benefits of school food programmes, many governments allocate considerable budgets for this purpose. However, making sure that these programmes are delivered appropriately is not without challenges.

First, governments must ensure that these budgets are sufficient, and are spent on healthy foods, in line with national nutritional standards. This is not always the case, which means that school meals may even contribute to unhealthy diets.

Second, even when nutritional standards are used, spending the allocated funds can be a difficult logistical problem that can lead to wasted resources, which is especially damming in a time of crisis. Both these problems were highlighted recently in the delivery of the free school meals programme in England.

Developing policies that support healthy diets

The World Health Organization recently launched an action framework to ensure that public procurement for food served and sold in public settings, such as schools, is aligned with nutritional guidelines. It helps governments by providing guidance on how to procure healthy foods for large programmes, such as school meals, stimulating demand for healthier, sustainably produced foods.

Brazil, for example, already requires that 30% of the national budget for food served in school meal programmes be spent on food from family farms, with priority and simpler procurement processes given to food produced using agro-ecological methods, a farming approach that aims to build sustainable and nutritious food systems. It thus encourages the purchase of unprocessed and minimally processed food – and not junk foods – for public institutions, including schools.

Young school girl with a plate of food

Young voices demanding change

We’ll leave you with this: while we must demand more from governments, we also must not forget to engage young people in having a say about the food they eat. There are some great examples of young people demanding better school food. The recently launched CO-CREATE Youth Declaration demands action across Europe to secure nutrition education and a healthy school cafeteria for all children.

In the UK, Bite Back 2030 showed us how Teens React To Free School Meals Around The World. They tell us they don’t necessarily want to eat fish and chips every Friday and are convinced that healthy food can be appealing.

Here at World Cancer Research Fund, in collaboration with Cook School, we’re launching Junior Cooks Club, a campaign to promote healthy eating habits among the UK’s children through fun, hands-on cooking lessons in schools. We came together through our shared belief that it’s never too early to develop healthy habits, and by introducing children to different food and flavours early on, as well as positive experiences of cooking, we aim to establish a long-term interest in healthy, nutritious cooking that will benefit the whole family.

But to fulfil youth’s potential, we need governments to ensure that they too stand up to the challenge to deliver healthy school food, and that young people are included in that process.

> Visit our NOURISHING database for examples of what governments across the world have done to improve food environments in schools and other public settings