Skip to main content

April 6, 2024

Fostering Health Equity Through School Food Environments

World Health Day, April 7, serves as an annual reminder of the collective commitment to promote health and well-being worldwide. One way to defend the right to health for all is to ensure that the place where children spend the majority of their days—their school—provides a healthy environment that nourishes their young minds and bodies. Enter School Feeding Policies (SFPs)—an often overlooked, yet immensely impactful intervention.

Children suffer the most from nutritional deficiencies, emphasizing the critical need for early intervention. By embedding healthy eating habits within school food environments, we can plant seeds for lifelong wellness and fortify resilience against chronic diseases. Evidence has shown that incorporating healthy eating habits early in life tends to inform long-term behaviors and reduce the risks of developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in adulthood. Food environments are considered crucial spaces for addressing many of the shared drivers of malnutrition. SFPs are recognized as an essential strategy for achieving goals in various sectors of society, including education, health, social protection and agriculture. Combining school feeding with other actions such as fresh food procurement from local smallholder farmers; school-based water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions; nutrition education; school gardens and/or agricultural education activities and regulating the supply and marketing of unhealthy products in schools’ environments can set off a chain of beneficial impacts that break the cycle of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

Our work on school food programs

Funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies initiatives, the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) supports advocacy campaigns aimed at enhancing school food policies in various countries such as Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Jamaica and South Africa.

Brazil provides an example of what is possible: civil society advocates and organizations contributed to the adoption of both national and subnational school feeding policies, such as a provision for the procurement of fresh food from small farmers. In 2023, Brazil increased the budget for its National School Feeding Program by 39%, enhancing the program’s sustainability and scalability. In addition, on December 12th, 2023, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed a decree outlining a comprehensive framework for promoting healthy eating habits in school environments nationwide. It lays the foundation for future laws at all government levels in educational settings and explicitly outlines a national position to reduce the availability of ultra-processed products in schools, addressing their detrimental impact on young Brazilians. It establishes three core pillars for building a healthier school environment: prioritizing Food and Nutrition Education, restricting Ultra-Processed Products and safeguarding young minds from unhealthy marketing.

GHAI is also working with the World Food Programme, from the United Nations and the School Meals Coalition to transform school meals purchasing in six pilot countries: Benin, Burundi, Ghana, Honduras, Kenia and Rwanda. The national-level advocacy plans will lead to the adoption of values-based institutional procurement to support healthy school environments and to promote an equitable and sustainable food and nutrition system. There will be a special focus on leveraging school meals programs as vehicles to drive social and economic change. This national level momentum will contribute to and benefit from a global level advocacy plan that reinforces the policy objectives.

Why SFPs are crucial

SFPs are more than just a means of providing meals; they represent a cornerstone in the pursuit of comprehensive child development. These programs play a pivotal role in shaping the holistic well-being of children, fostering not only physical health but also cognitive development and social-emotional growth. By ensuring healthy school environments and regular access to nutritious meals, SFPs lay the foundation for healthy lifestyles and optimal learning potential. Moreover, they serve as powerful agents of positive change within communities, instilling a sense of security and stability, particularly in times of adversity or crisis. Beyond their immediate benefits, SFPs wield transformative potential in addressing broader socio-economic challenges.

Integrating SFPs with complementary initiatives such as water, sanitation and hygiene interventions and nutrition education creates an ecosystem that works together to holistically support children and families. Not only does this approach address immediate nutritional needs but it also equips children and families with the knowledge and resources to make informed healthy food choices. Furthermore, SFPs play a crucial role as essential safety nets, providing a lifeline to vulnerable populations struggling with poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. By breaking the intergenerational cycle of deprivation, these programs empower individuals and communities to chart a course towards a brighter future. Through targeted interventions that prioritize the most marginalized and at-risk groups, SFPs are catalysts for inclusive development, ensuring that no child is left behind.

Moreover, SFPs advance sustainability, championing environmentally-friendly practices that promote long-term resilience. By embracing sustainable food procurement and consumption models, SFPs minimize their ecological footprint while simultaneously supporting local farmers and economies. This commitment to environmental stewardship not only safeguards natural resources but also fosters socio-economic resilience within communities, creating a cycle of prosperity and well-being.

School Feeding Policies must promote a holistic, equitable and sustainable food and nutrition system while also supporting the economic and social development of local communities. These programs should embody foundational characteristics aimed at fostering practices that safeguard both human health and the environment, ensuring adequate living standards and mitigating social inequalities.

As we commemorate this World Health Day, it’s important to reflect on the right to health for all. Investing in healthy SFPs and nurturing supportive food environments sows the seeds of a healthier, more equitable future.