Food and nutrition education in schools

Food and nutrition education (FNE) in the school setting aims to facilitate the voluntary adoption of long-lasting, healthy food-related outlooks, practices and habits conducive to better health and well-being. FNE may comprise a combination of evidence-based and behaviourally focussed educational strategies, which involve the active participation of all relevant actors (schoolchildren, parents, school staff, community leaders, etc.) and are reinforced by an enabling school environment. FNE actions should be based on the local situation; be developmentally and culturally appropriate; and have an adequate duration and intensity, and a practical focus (Perez-Rodrigo and Aranceta, 2003; FAO, 2018).

School gardens form a relevant school food and nutrition tool to be used as a platform for learning. It should not be regarded as bulk sources of food or income, though a school can provide limited amounts of nutrient-rich leafy or other vegetables, but rather as a path to better nutrition and education. Students can learn how to grow, tend, harvest, and prepare nutritious seasonal produce in the educational settings of the classroom, the garden, the kitchen, the school cafeteria, and the home. The experience promotes the environmental, social, and physical wellbeing of the school community and fosters a better understanding of how the natural world sustains us. Links with home gardens reinforce the concept and pave the way for an exchange of knowledge and experience between the school and the community (FAO, 2010; FAO and Swensson, 2015).

It is fundamental to explore synergies between food and nutrition education strategies and school meals programmes, using the participatory approach to promote the full development of children’s capacities and motivation for healthier food-related practices. Effective food and nutrition education involves providing children, school staff, teachers, cooks, canteen staff, communities, families, and local smallholder farmers with hands-on learning experiences tailored to facilitate the voluntary adoption of healthy eating and other positive nutrition-related behaviours. Smallholder farmers can also understand the importance of producing local safe and diversified food for school meals programmes. In many communities, schools are the only place where children can learn such basic life skills. Linking classroom learning to practical activities that are reinforced by a nutrition- and health-friendly school environment and involve the participation of families and the school community, provides a wide range of practical, community-based learning opportunities aimed at creating positive attitudes, skills, and behaviours (Psaki, 2014; Lobstein et al., 2015).

Agents of change

To realize the full potential of school-based food and nutrition interventions, it is important to highlight the importance of capable, trained agents of change. Teachers, school staff, students, parents, caterers, food vendors, and farmers all have an important role to play in helping promote positive nutritional behaviour. Developing capacity for these actors and equipping them with the necessary knowledge and skills on nutrition, food hygiene, healthy diets, and lifestyle is paramount. Teachers, in particular, will require more formal training and capacity development, as they can be among the most important promoters of positive nutritional behaviour among the youth. They have the opportunity not only to influence eating habits through food and nutritional education but also to address other issues, including the nutritional needs of adolescent girls and pregnant women, and maternal and infant care.

Benefits and costs of school-based nutrition interventions

As argued above school-based food and nutrition interventions can underpin nutrition and health services, including nutrition education and other health promoting behaviours as well as contribute to social protection and local economic development. Growth monitoring and/or regular screening can help detect children with various forms of malnutrition and health problems. School-based food and nutrition intervention comes at a cost, but because of the multiple objectives and benefits involved, any narrowly defined cost-benefit analysis will underestimate the full impact of school-based nutrition measures. One key outcome is to increase regular school attendance by both girls and boys. This serves as a basis for educational achievement, leading to better economic productivity and, consequently, a greater contribution to national GDP. While this outcome is still relevant in some low- and middle-income countries, it has become less central as school participation has increased. Thus, the total value of school-based food and nutrition interventions increasingly is based on their contribution to learning as well as in social protection and sustainable development.

Finding sustained sources of funding for school-based intervention, including school gardens, can pose a challenge for many lower- to middle-income countries. However, school-based interventions should:

  • • Be part of the national budget;
  • • Plan a clear transition period from donor support to sustainable domestic budgetary support, rather than resort to abrupt programme termination; and
  • • Be supported by UN agencies and other partners, in close coordination with governments and local stakeholders, to ensure that programmes become part of long-term, sustainable social-protection and local development strategies led by countries, both in the global North and South.

Concluding remarks

Schools offer an extremely important entry point to improve health and nutrition to children in a sustainable way. As described above, SHN interventions, when implemented in an integrated way, have huge potential to improve the nutritional status of schoolchildren and at the same time shape their health-seeking behaviour for the rest of their lives. School gardens can be an important element of SHN interventions as many of the benefits and outcomes highlighted throughout this book reinforces. School gardening, can also be used as a tool to teach students about food, the environment, health, and hygiene. Moreover, it provides a suitable space to engage other stakeholders, such as local authorities, parents, and those who have gardens at home (FAO, 2019).

Specific benefits are expected when school gardens grow a variety of indigenous crops, thus contributing to pupils’ knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the importance of a diverse production system that underpins healthy and sustainable diets.

Home-grown school feeding can also have an important spin off effect on local economic development in instances where local farmers and caterers are involved in the supply and preparation of safe and diversified foods and nutritious meals. Despite the many countries and projects experiences, it is important to note that there is still considerable opportunity to further improve the understanding of the role of school meals programmes on job creation for low-skilled and/or rural women, youths and farmers, as well as of the enabling institutional, policy and legal enabling environment that may inform the sustainability of the programme and its benefits. In this respect it is interesting to know if school gardens can help prompt students to opt for employment in agriculture.

To conclude, it is possible to affirm that when school meals programmes are thoughtfully planned, supported by an appropriate institutional, political, and legal environment, and implemented with strong cross-sectoral coordination, they can act as an investment, producing benefits across multiple sectors (Morgan and Sonnino, 2008; Espejo et al., 2009; Gelli et al., 2010; Sumberg and Sabates-Wheeler, 2011; Drake etal., 2016; Tartanac etal., 2018; WFP et al., 2018).

They also provide the opportunity to involve a multitude of community actors, including civil society, farmer organizations, and the private sector. Consequently, schools, especially those with HGSF programmes and linked to food and nutrition education activities, have the potential to create a more sustainable, inclusive local food system (HLPE, 2017) in their community and also to contribute to healthier and more sustainable diets.

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