Driven by strong evidence, the nutrition community has focused on the first 1,000 days of life as a crucial window for laying the foundation for healthier futures. But older children and adolescents also need good nutrition as they continue to develop physically and mentally.
Nearly 370 million children depend on school meals for a significant part of their daily sustenance; these meals thus play a key role in determining whether these children succeed in school and are able to set a path for healthy, productive adulthood. It is tragic that, currently, at least 1.5 billion school-age children are out of school worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, missing both meals and learning.
Studies have shown how school-age children and adolescents benefit from eating biofortified foods: a study in India found that adolescents had improved cognitive outcomes through the regular consumption of iron pearl millet, while a study in Zambia concluded that regular consumption of Vitamin A biofortified maize led to improved night vision in school children.
What role can micronutrient-rich biofortified foods and supportive government policies play in making school meals and school children healthier? Here are two examples from Africa:
Vitamin A Sweet Potato in Uganda
In Uganda, where sweet potato is a major staple food, most schools have an adjoining garden where children help plant and harvest vitamin A orange sweet potatoes (OSP). For the past four years, the Multisectoral Food Security and Nutrition Project (UMFSNP), funded by the World Bank’s Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) provides schools in Uganda with vines to grow OSP and iron beans in school gardens.
In some of the schools, children learn about the importance of vitamin A for their immunity and health, tend to the crop in the school garden, and take home vines and key nutrition/health messages to their parents. There is no more tenacious agent of behavior change than a school-aged child armed with information about the need to stop smoking, start recycling, or improve eating habits!
To date, this program has reached children in 1,500 schools. The Ugandan government has now taken the important step of expanding and implementing the school feeding program across the country; furthermore, many schools are now procuring biofortified foods for school lunches directly from local farming families. This improves the farmers’ livelihoods, reduces transport costs, and even boosts school retention, because parents who sell their biofortified crops to schools earn extra income to pay their children’s school fees. The government is also considering the inclusion of biofortification in national school feeding guidelines, which would make this healthy intervention even more sustainable and scalable.
HarvestPlus continues to play an active role in Uganda’s National Biofortification Technical Working Group, under the oversight of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ugandan government has already signaled strong commitment for biofortification through inclusion in a number of national policies, including: the Uganda Nutrition Action Plan, the Agriculture Sector Strategic Plan, and the Anemia Prevention and Control Strategic Plan. At the local level, Northeast Uganda has included biofortification in its Multisectoral Nutrition Intervention Strategy (Karamoja region).
Vitamin A Maize in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, where maize is the mainstay of daily diets, HarvestPlus has worked with partners to pilot the introduction of vitamin A maize and high-iron beans in 612 schools. To lay the groundwork, HarvestPlus technical staff have held community meetings, provided sample seed packs, and assisted with demonstration plots with support from the Zimbabwe Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP), which is funded by the UK Department for International Development. The Zimbabwe national government provides the maize for sadza (maize pudding), and parents on each school’s development committee decide which “relish” to season it with, such as mustard greens, pumpkin leaves, or beans.
HarvestPlus is encouraging schools in Zimbabwe to make the meals even healthier by purchasing iron-biofortified beans from local farmers—a win-win for strengthening local livelihoods as well as nutrition in the community. These combo packs of vitamin A maize and iron beans double the nutrition boost by providing both of these important micronutrients.
The Zimbabwean government has already included biofortification in the country’s National Nutrition Strategy and other policies, and is supportive of efforts to reach more citizens with these nourishing crops. These include incorporating biofortification in national school meal guidelines—something HarvestPlus is also recommending to officials at the district and provincial levels as well. This multi-pronged approach will help ensure that as many children as possible can be reached.
A Global Push
The integration of biofortification in school programs is also being promoted at the global level. For example, the World Food Programme (WFP), which plays a key role in providing school meals in developing countries and emergency settings, recently updated their local and regional procurement guidelines to include the procurement of biofortified crops. HarvestPlus will now work in partnership with the WFP to create a delivery action plan to bring the guidelines to life and turn policy into action.
The WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding Program supports local smallholder farmers to provide millions of schoolchildren in 46 countries with safe, diverse, nutritious, and local foods. HarvestPlus teams have been working with WFP to link farmers to school feeding procurement programs in several countries, including Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and Zambia.
The Global Child Nutrition Foundation’s Global School Meals Survey includes biofortification as one of its standard questions and will be used to develop a baseline database on the current state of school feeding programs in all countries. Mainstreaming biofortification into these surveys is a key indicator of governments’ and global bodies’ commitments to improving childhood nutrition.
HarvestPlus welcomes these initiatives by governments and global organizations that embrace innovations such as biofortification to fight hidden hunger through school meals and other food-based programs. This investment in human capital will pay dividends for many years to come.