Year 6 pupils enjoy their hot meal in the school canteen. Photo Credit: WFP

Fortified school meals plan creates new market for Benin and Ghana farmers

[rt_dropcap_style dropcap_letter=”A” dropcap_content=”$10.7 million grant programme to provide fortified foods in school meals launched by the World Food Programme with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation is set to boost productivity and value addition of high-nutrient crops by smallholder farmers in Benin, Ghana, Honduras and India.”]

In Benin, Ghana and Honduras, the project is expected to directly impact the lives of more than one million school children. The project will also promote local food production, benefiting smallholder farmers and provide school cooks with information on optimal nutrition for children.

School feeding programmes are an important social safety net providing nourishment for children through healthy diets and tackling chronic undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. “The expansion of school meals creates new market opportunities for farmers while investing in the cognitive and physical development of vulnerable children – many of whom are the children of farmers,” says Mehrdad Ehsani, Vice President, Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation, Africa Region.

While the programme will not prescribe how supply chains should be organised, it will address the issues of reliable quantity and quality of produce sourced at a competitive price from smallholder farmers. The Rockefeller Foundation notes that school feeding programmes are the world’s most extensive social safety net, valued at US$45 billion annually and benefit over 388 million children globally, 65 million of them in Africa.

According to the World Health Organisation in Africa, while the prevalence of stunting in children decreased from 38.3% in 2000 to 30.3% in 2017, the number of children affected increased from 50.6 million to 58.7 million due to population growth. The number of children younger than 5 years who are overweight increased from 6.6 million in 2000 to 9.7 million in 2017. While Africa has performed well against other regions, it still experiences a malnutrition burden among children

aged under five years, according to the Global Nutrition Report which shows that average prevalence of overweight is 5.3% – the second lowest across all regions.

The prevalence of stunting is 30%, which is higher than the global average of 22%. The WFP says the school system is an exceptionally cost-effective platform for delivering health and nutrition services, especially in low- and middleincome countries.

Poor health and nutrition in middle childhood leads to an impaired immune system, increased morbidity, impaired cognition and malnutrition Evidence suggests that well-designed school feeding programmes, meaning programmes that provide nutritious, fresh school meals, which are ideally complemented by other health interventions, can promote adequate diets in children. For example, school meals, especially when fortified or supplemented, can reduce the prevalence of anaemia by up to 20% in girls.

The WFP says it will work with value chain actors and medium-scale millers in their shift to wholegrains, which contain five times more nutrients than refined grains and this boost farmers’ production. WFP says school feeding programmes that are linked to local agricultural production can create structured and predictable markets for local and smallholder farmers. This leads to more stable incomes and reduces smallholders’ risks when investing in improved and diversified production. For example in Brazil, 30% of all purchases for school feeding come from smallholder agriculture.

Besides, school meals also favour the creation of new jobs in the food sector by engaging communities, particularly women, along the entire value chain – from farm to school. These programmes create nearly 1,700 new jobs for every 100,000 children fed. The WFP is currently supporting school meals programmes in 46 African countries (out of 82 countries globally) through technical assistance and operational support.

The goal is for national governments to eventually take ownership of the programmes – a transition that has already happened in 13 African countries. The grant is part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Good Food strategy, which focuses on increasing access to affordable, healthy food; reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the food system, and expanding economic opportunity for small- and mid-size food producers.

In addition, the programme will strengthen understanding and ways of measuring the health and nutrition status of school children at national and global levels.

“Measurement is important evidence for governments and development partners to increase support for school meals,” Ehsani said, adding that they were exploring the design of a Good Food Scoring Framework to encourage national governments and large institutions to direct their buying power towards better food options that are more nutritious, sustainable and equitable. In Benin, the government aims to reach 100% of public school children with school meals by 2025, up from the current 75 percent coverage. The WFP, which has implemented the programme on behalf of the government since 2017, will next focus the programme on greater local food purchases and production and improved nutrition, especially through vitamin A and iron fortification of children’s foods.

While in Ghana, the country’s national home-grown school meals programme was one of the first in Africa and includes 3.5 million of 5.1 million primary learners. WFP will support the Ghanaian government to improve nutrition and the quality of meals for children and promote fortified rice, while seeking to extend to other fortified whole grain products and fortified processed products.

The WFP will conduct analyses in different country contexts to optimize menus for nutrition, resilient crops, cost effectiveness, opportunities for local procurement and regenerative agriculture. Ehsani says there are opportunities to promote hardy grains such as millet and sorghum which are both nutritious and resilient in the school feeding programme. Research evidence indicates that there are excellent opportunities around whole grain flour blends that would include millet and sorghum mixes as well as other drought-tolerant crops.

“We foresee that the innovations from menu optimization will spill over from school meals to mass markets over time, which will have a profound effect on hidden hunger,” said Ehsani, noting that the programme will showcase that shifting consumption patterns from refined grain flours to whole, fortified flour is cost neutral and more nutritious.

The project builds on a previous grant to WFP from The Rockefeller Foundation to address malnutrition among children in Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda by bringing fortified beans and fortified whole grain maize meal into school meals.

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