CHICAGO, Illinois — A variety of factors contribute to malnutrition, such as food insecurity, insufficient quality of food, poor maternal health and conflict and instability. All of these factors are strongly related to poverty, which itself is the main risk factor for childhood malnutrition around the world. The World Food Programme (WFP) provides food assistance to countries in need. One global strategy that WFP utilizes in its aims for the alleviation of childhood malnutrition is the creation and improvement of national school feeding programs. In particular, national school feeding programs in Laos, an impoverished Southeast Asian country, are ensuring nutrition for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Laos suffers from the highest childhood malnutrition rate of all the countries in Southeast Asia, with around a third of all children recorded as stunted, as well as 21% being underweight and 9% wasted. The country’s newly developed National School Meals Programme will build on the 20 years of work that WFP has dedicated to helping hundreds of thousands of Lao children access food.
School Feeding Programs in Laos
WFP’s priorities and policies seek to address the many different facets of food inaccessibility, and its work includes emergency relief and the promotion of gender equality. One of WFP’s most robust initiatives is its network of national school feeding programs, which have had a presence in more than 100 countries.
Most of these programs provide students with a snack and a lunch during the school day. The process of implementation begins with securing funding, the vast majority of which WFP receives in the form of voluntary donations. Using this funding, the organization purchases food and transports it to countries with school feeding programs. From there, it distributes food to individual schools.
The Borgen Project secured an interview with Elliott Grantz, a program policy officer with WFP currently working with the national school feeding program in Laos. Grantz explains that on a technical level, different countries will present different challenges during the course of program implementation; for example, because Laos is a landlocked country, resources must first be sent to Thailand before being delivered by land to Laos. Laos is also a country that experiences a monsoon season from May to October, meaning that it is extremely important for storage facilities used to house foodstuffs to be resistant to intense humidity and flooding during heavy rainfall, in addition to being capable of keeping out insects and other vermin.
When developing national school feeding programs, she says WFP “need[s]to make sure this is something that the community actually wants, and get them involved.” It often achieves this by reaching out to local farmers when trying to secure resources for rations, providing farmers and the broader agricultural community with a stable customer and income base after harvests. These programs are currently active in 46 countries.
Motivators and Goals
National school feeding programs have far-reaching consequences beyond reducing the number of malnourished children. The benefits that these programs provide outside of the provision of food during the school day are vast. Grantz explains that governments are acutely aware of the benefits these programs can provide for their countries: “When people have an education, they are more likely to receive a higher income later in life, which then can bring the circle back around again, and make sure that their children are going to school, getting an education and higher income.” School feeding programs provide children and families with a strong incentive to regularly go to school, which leads to improved social and economic outcomes throughout generations.
The very process of implementing national school feeding programs has also led to the creation of 4 million jobs in 85 countries, a direct result of WFP’s work that has buoyed economies and accelerated economic growth. This number is only bound to increase as more and more children reap the benefits of attending school and receiving an education.
What Makes Laos Different?
After first joining with the Lao Ministry of Education and Sports in 2002 a pilot program that fed 30,000 schoolchildren, WFP has provided over 140,00 school-aged children meals in the two decades it has been active in the country. Laos is one of the WFP country offices that has completed the process of what Grantz calls “graduation,” referring to the transfer of responsibility for national school feeding programs from WFP to the governments of the countries that the organization is serving. This process in Laos first began in 2019, when WFP handed over control of programs feeding 515 schools. In 2021, WFP completed the transfer by turning over the remaining 915 schools, marking Laos as the 47th country to gain full ownership of its WFP-supported school feeding program.
What this means is that while WFP continues to have a country office and a presence in Lao PDR, it is no longer directly responsible for the implementation of the programs; instead, the organization and its employees provide support and aid to the government as it navigates the execution and administration of its National School Meals Programme.
While many country offices have yet to graduate, Grantz stresses that this is not a case of countries not wanting to take on this role, and “the willingness and the want is always there.” The main hurdle is economic capacity, which is a hurdle that developing countries face even beyond the implementation of national school feeding programs. Grantz says that ultimately, WFP wants to become obsolete: “We want there to no longer be a need for us to be implementing anymore, so our main goal is Zero Hunger worldwide.” WFP considers government takeover of WFP programs to be the most sustainable way to achieve Zero Hunger as it appears in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In the midst of the pandemic, schools in many countries closed, including countries where school feeding programs have been a crucial tool in fighting childhood malnutrition. WFP had to be creative in order to continue feeding children without their usual mechanism of doing so. One of the solutions that Grantz describes is the distribution of take-home rations that, during the pandemic, allowed schoolchildren and their families to eat their WFP-allotted meals at home rather than at school.
Beyond creating new strategies on the individual country level, the WFP has also become a member of a new global initiative focused on distributing school meals to malnourished children. Seeing that school closures had interrupted a crucial method for childhood malnutrition, national governments around the world banded together to create the School Meals Coalition in 2021. With 98 stakeholders involved, including 88 countries, and WFP as secretariat, the Coalition strives to re-establish and further improve school meal programs in countries affected by school closures.
As the pandemic comes to an end, school feeding programs in many countries have returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, with some even exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Developing countries, however, continue to be the hardest hit by the effects of COVID-19, as rising costs have presented an obstacle to the restarting and re-strengthening of their school feeding programs.
Grantz summarizes the global economic crisis in three simple words: “fertilizer, food and fuel.” With these resources hardest hit by inflation, developing countries are struggling to rebound from the detrimental impact of the pandemic. Expensive fertilizer turns into smaller food harvests, which turn into higher food costs, which high transportation costs due to the rise in fuel prices further exacerbate, WFP is aware of this continued issue and has labeled the promotion of stronger programs in developing countries an extremely important priority.
WFP’s school feeding programs are sure to continue expanding their reach. Though the global economic crisis has not yet begun to lessen in severity, initiatives like the School Meals Coalition focus on ensuring that all countries, particularly the developing countries that are suffering most acutely from continuing inflation, can offer their citizens robust school feeding programs. As long as this dedication exists and governments and organizations continue to work together in this effort, schoolchildren across the world will benefit just as schoolchildren have benefited from School feeding programs in Laos
– Sofia Oliver