Feature - ISSUE #9
The benefits of nutritious free school meals can impact and elevate whole communities, and together with school gardens and nutrition programmes, are fundamental to future generations’ understanding of the link between what we grow, what we eat, and the environment.
Tanja Grén has fond memories of lunch breaks during her primary school days in Finland. Now Finland’s permanent representative to the UN agencies in Rome, she remembers picking lingonberries with classmates, which the cafeteria staff turned into meals. “I always looked forward to the days when my favorite food was served. For example, I liked a lot pancakes with spinach. I still do. I also liked whipped porridge with lingonberries,” she says. Rice porridge is still served to Finnish students, but these days, they can also choose from chickpea coconut soup, chicken soup, vegetable steaks or macaroni with meat.
On the other side of the world, Tony Yoo grew up in a country without a school meal system. His lunchbox consisted of his grandmother’s homemade rice, soup, kimchi, and a few side dishes. But not everyone was as fortunate. “I saw some students who had no parents, suffered from family troubles, or in poverty, drinking water directly from the taps to alleviate hunger or roaming around on their own during lunch time because they had nothing to eat,” he recalls.
“These experiences made me think a system where people can eat together is necessary,” he adds. Tony is now a chef, whose Seoul restaurant Dooreyoo was the first in South Korea to receive a Michelin star.
Then there are people like Safira, an elfin 11-year-old who looked much smaller than her years when I met her nearly five years ago on a hot and humid afternoon at her primary school outside the Indonesian capital Jakarta. She and her classmates were having fried noodles, fried chicken and a banana. As she tore delicately into the chicken with freshly washed hands, Safira told me how delicious it was, how she cannot concentrate on an empty stomach, and that this was the first and only meal she would have for the day.
Safira’s free lunch, provided three days a week, was a carefully considered mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fibre and vitamins, sourced from local farmers and cooked by a group of local mothers, with training and support from the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
What these stories show is that while experiences vary, school meals shape our understanding of food, future diets and even our aspirations. Studies have shown free school meals can reduce hunger, improve health and nutrition, and boost a country’s productivity, but the aid workers, chefs and researchers I speak to say there is an increasing realisation that expanding them to include school gardens and linking them to local farms can provide additional benefits.
The Edible Schoolyard Project was founded in 1995 by chef, author and activist Alice Waters to transform the food experience at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. There is now a network of more than 5,800 programmes across the US. (Photograph courtesy Edible Schoolyard/Kelly Sullivan.)
Among other benefits, the authors of the book, Agrobiodiversity, School Gardens and Healthy Diets, published in 2020, found that children who grow their own food are more likely to eat healthily, while school gardens help children to better understand agriculture and the impact of climate change, and encourage local biodiversity conservation while also empowering girls and women.
And according to a study published in 2019 titled Biodiverse Edible Schools: Linking Healthy Food, School Gardens and Local Urban Biodiversity, this education could reverse, or at least combat, worrying trends: increased urbanisation and the proliferation of gadgets mean children have little time to interact with nature and many do not know where foods come from, how they are produced, and what the environmental or social impacts are. In turn, these trends can lead to future generations having little awareness or support for biodiversity conservation.
Understanding how our dietary habits affect the planet is critical: UN research published in 2021 shows food systems account for a third of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions that are heating up the planet and are the primary driver of biodiversity loss.
First and foremost, though, free school meals are about ensuring kids do not go hungry, says Dan Giusti, former head chef at Denmark’s three-Michelin-starred Noma. He left the bright lights of fine dining and set up Brigaid in 2016 to improve the quality and consistency of school food in the US, where he grew up.
Giusti’s team provides breakfast, lunch, often a snack - and sometimes supper - at the schools they work with. In the city of Denver, where they began working last summer, they are producing around 90,000 lunches a day. Tight budgets - about $1.50 (£1.10) a meal - mean he has to make difficult choices at times. For example, he says, buying compostable wares would leave less money for food.
Immaculée Mukarusanga working in a field of beans in Nyaruguru district, Rwanda. She primarily grows iron-rich single variety beans, which she sells through the farmers’ cooperative she is a part of. WFP buys beans from the cooperative for its Homegrown School Feeding programme in Rwanda. (PhotographS COURTESY WFP/Fredrik Lerneryd.)
Nine year old Belyse serves school lunch to her class in Bwama Primary school in Nyamagabe district, Rwanda. The school is a part of the Homegrown School Feeding programme and Belyse’s family also has a kitchen garden at home where they grow vegetables from seeds that Belyse received through the programme. (PhotographS COURTESY WFP/Fredrik Lerneryd.)
He also has to make decisions about what nutritional choices really matter when it comes to educating the children about what they eat. “Kids really like sugary, low-quality cereals where they recognise the brand,” he says. “If that is not an option, there are kids who will choose not to eat. In my opinion, it’s better they eat something… but this is kind of an unpopular opinion.
“Obviously, over time, the better we get in terms of preparing food within constraints… we can serve food that we’re really happy with that’s nutritious, good quality, and is also food that kids will eat. But the main goal is to feed the kids.”
The US government’s school food programme, which serves 30 million children, is the world’s fourth largest after India (90 million), Brazil and China (both 40 million), according to the WFP. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, one in every two school kids globally, around 388 million children, received free school meals every day.
“[School meals] are one of the most cost-effective interventions,” says Maria José Rojas, head of partnerships and advocacy for school feeding at the WFP.
“You can have the most beautiful classes, the best curriculum, the best teachers, the best infrastructure, but if the kids are sick, they’re not going to school and those classrooms are empty. And if the kids are in the classroom, but they’re hungry, they’re not learning.”
Moreover, she adds, free meals have been found to improve school enrolment, reduce anaemia in children, and save households a large percentage of monthly income for each child who attends school.
Finland has been transformed by free school meals, says Tanja Grén. She credits free school meals with turning Finland from a poor, war-torn state into a prosperous, welfare nation.
The country passed a law in 1943 requiring all schools to offer free meals, the first in the world to do so, which she believes is important for the economic and social welfare of the society.
Perhaps this is why Finland, alongside France, is leading the School Meals Coalition, launched at the Food Systems Summit in 2021, to strengthen school meal systems worldwide after pandemic-induced school closures left millions of children without fresh, nutritious meals.
The history of free school meals may be rooted in curbing hunger, but well-run programmes can also have a financial benefit, according to research by the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard, US, which found that they can yield returns of $9 (£6.71) for every dollar invested, creating value across multiple sectors, and resulting in around 1,700 new jobs for every 100,000 children fed.
The returns are evident in the Rwandan government’s Homegrown School Feeding programme, supported by the WFP, for which the production, provisioning and cooking of the food is done locally, helping farmers like Immaculée Mukarusanga.
With the aim of connecting children to food, the natural world, and community, the Firstline Schools Edible Schoolyard project runs at several schools in New Orleans, US, including the Langston Hughes Academy, which enjoys seasonal produce from its Dreamkeeper Garden. (Photograph courtesy esynola/Sean Ambrose.)
The 50-year-old single mother belongs to a local farming cooperative, which has been supplying maize, biofortified beans and potatoes to the programme since 2018. Training on environmentally-friendly farming techniques, and post-harvest handling and storage, helped the cooperative double crop yields, while the produce fetches better prices, leading to higher incomes for the farmers.
“In my case, I have already bought one cow, which has already produced another one,” says Mukarusanga. “[But the programme also means that my two daughters] are motivated to attend school. Before the feeding programme, you would see they’re not motivated and sometimes absent from school.”
Some schools are going a step further, viewing school meals and school gardens as opportunities to raise a new generation of socially- and environmentally-conscious consumers, simultaneously expanding children’s palates and teaching them about nature.
“When a child has their hands in the soil, that’s a different understanding of what it takes to grow food, versus just reading it in a textbook or seeing it on TV,” says Angela McKee-Brown, executive director of California-based The Edible Schoolyard Project. “This creates a deeper sense of appreciation and respect for the agricultural system, for our farm workers, for our chefs, and for those who prepare food for us.”
Set up by famed chef Alice Waters in 1995, the non-profit uses organic school gardens, kitchens and cafeteria to teach both academic subjects and issues such as community and sustainability, which it calls “Edible Education”. It also provides free curriculum resources and trainings, and has a network of more than 5,800 programmes in the US.
The organisation is also advocating for school lunches to be organic, adds McKee-Brown. Each school meal weighs roughly 0.6kg so 30m meals a day equates to 20.4m kg of food and milk, she said: “Imagine the impact you could have on our agricultural system and climate change if that food was being procured from farmers doing climate smart, organic practices?”
This sentiment is shared by Barbara Nappini, Slow Food Italy’s first female president, who is campaigning for good food not just in schools, but also in hospitals, offices and prisons, because “canteens move tonnes of food every day”.
“Today, talking about food means talking about a system in crisis,” she says. “We’re facing environmental, climatic, migratory and health crises and they’re all connected to food.” But, she adds, the work of Qualità e Servizi, a public company owned by six municipalities in Tuscany that prepares around 9,000 dishes a day, with more than 70% of the food coming from local producers, shows it is possible to provide “good, clean and fair” meals.
The Edible Schoolyard Project was replicated in Aiwa Elementary School, Tokyo, Japan, where the garden, with its diversity of life, is a safe place for children to learn. The aim is for students to learn where food comes from; to develop an appreciation for the taste of vegetables using all of their senses; to understand the meaning and true value of the web of life; to develop empathy and love for other living things and nature, and to nurture an attitude of cooporation, an appreciation for companionship and a sense of achievement. (Photograph COURTESY Edible Schoolyard AIWA.)
A typical meal from Qualità e Servizi for primary school students includes an organic pasta dish, a meat, dairy or fish dish, vegetables and fruit. The cost, at €5.25, is comparable to an average Italian school meal.
In Tokyo, Japan, where editor and writer Hiroko Horiguchi replicated The Edible Schoolyard Project at a primary school in 2014, the team reported witnessing significant changes in children’s behaviour after growing their own foods.
“We have witnessed many children who used to hate green peppers bite into a green bell pepper from the garden as if they were eating an apple,” says Horiguchi. “And the school garden is a safe place for children who are not good at communicating with others to be themselves, and such a place is needed in schools.”
The attitudes of young kids at a public school in New Orleans that replicated Alice Waters’ Edible Education model left a deep impression on Claudia Barker, the chief development officer at FirstLine Schools, which runs five schools in the US state. “These two little boys were arguing over who was going to get the last artichoke heart in the salad,” she says. “I was like, ‘They’re doing something right here if kids are fighting over the salad.’”
More policymakers and donors are recognising the critical role of school nutrition programmes such as meals and gardens, but multiple challenges remain: most programmes are reliant on donor funding, raising questions over their long-term sustainability. And while the pandemic highlighted childhood hunger and the importance of biodiversity, the resulting economic downturns are likely to keep school feeding budgets low. In addition, it can be difficult to get political buy-in because it takes about a decade for benefits to show: “Sometimes, it’s really difficult to find governments who are happy to invest in a programme that will show results probably after that government,” says Maria José Rojas.
Tanja Grén believes several elements are critical to the success of a school feeding programme - political will and long-term commitment, legislation and regulations, and cooperation: “It is important to have a common view that the school meals system is a joint investment in the future of each and every individual child as well as in the future of the society.”
Garden education needs to be properly planned and resourced because teachers are already overburdened with responsibilities. It is also crucial that health, agriculture, and education sectors converge, collaborate, and complement each other at local level because, often, school gardens are not linked with school feeding programmes, often due to structural problems where the former comes under the Department of Agriculture and the latter under the Department of Education.
For all the challenges, however, it is vital that these programmes continue, says Claudia Barker: “Our only hope, really, is to be able to educate the next generation about the connection between what we grow and what we eat, and the environment.”