How Do School Meals in the US Stack Up Against Other Countries? | Civil Eats

How Do School Meals in the US Stack Up Against Other Countries?

Italy’s school meal menu reads like a fancy restaurant’s, and kids in Finland get to test and approve meals. In the US, the National School Lunch Program links to ag, education, and nutrition, but the director of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation says it still has a long way to go.

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The pandemic revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the country’s school meal programs. In some cases, this unique time led to opportunities for local farmers to provide food directly to school districts. It also ushered in a wave of emergency allotments, which offset family food costs and  significantly decreased food insecurity. However, when those funds came to an end, it exposed how many families struggled as the costs of groceries ballooned and universal free meals disappeared in most states.

“We’ve made them seem like charity handout programs, but they’re multi-sectoral, complex programs that actually contribute significantly to economic development, short and long term.”

In 2021, the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF), a nonprofit that provides global monitoring and advocacy to support the development of school feeding programs, ran a survey to capture the state of school meal programs across 139 countries—representing 81 percent of the world’s population.

This is the second GCNF global survey (the first was in 2019) and it collected data for the school year that began in 2020, highlighting 183 programs with large-scale meal programs. The goal is to track the programs’ progress and standardize their evaluation of coverage, beneficiaries, funding, links to local agriculture, and more.

Arlene Mitchell, GCNF’s executive director, believes  school meal programs are misunderstood. “We’ve made them seem like charity handout programs, but they’re multi-sectoral, complex programs that actually contribute significantly to economic development, short and long term,” she said.

We spoke with Mitchell about what the survey revealed, how the United States’ program stacks up to other school meal programs around the world, and how it can improve.

What does a good school meal program look like?

There are a number of factors that we consider. One is, are they covering the need? [And then] how comprehensive it is—is it more than just feeding kids? [Does] it include some nutrition education, some knowledge of where food comes from? In some cases, it includes things like children helping to prepare or serve the food. They’re actually engaged in the program more meaningfully.

A third factor that we look for is a set of things that can contribute to sustainability, or to keep the program going. Are they engaging meaningfully with local farmers so that there is some economic opportunity locally alongside the program? Do they have a healthy relationship with the private sector in their country? Is it creating jobs? Is it in the national budget in a way that means that it can be sustained?

You look at countries at all levels of income and development. Which of the low-income countries stood out to you? Which ones did an exceptional job working with the resources that they have?

There are some pretty stunning examples of low-income countries actually trying harder, proportionately, than some rich countries to address hunger and nutrition in their school-aged kids. For years, one that has been astounding to me is Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world. Something like 89 percent of the budget for school meals is coming from the government, a very high percentage for a low-income country. And they’re covering almost 100 percent of their [elementary] school students, which is just extraordinary.

After the Millennium Development project in the early 2000s took off, several African countries pledged to implement new programs. Ghana has a very impressive program. Kenya has a pretty impressive program. Nigeria is new to the scene; their program now is very impressive and expanding quickly.

“There’s a lot to be proud of in the program. But one of the biggest issues is that the country has lost its excitement about it.”

Let’s jump to the U.S. What are some of the strengths of the programs here?

I think the pillars of the National School Lunch Program are admirable. They link to agriculture, they link education, they link to nutrition. If you neglect any one of those three, the program is not going to be as strong. That starting point is excellent. It’s reaching the kids who really need it. The fact that it is supported relatively sustainably by the national government is hugely important. If this was turned over to 50 states to run independently on their own, it would be a mess, because you would have 50 different standards, 50 different budgets.

And yet states have the flexibility to improve or change or tweak their program. They don’t have total flexibility if they want government funding, but they do have some flexibility. So it allows for local government input and local community input, but there are some national standards and guidelines and criteria, which I think is important for a country as large and diverse as the United States.

Where does the U.S. stand up against other more well-resourced countries?

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There’s a lot to be proud of in the program. But one of the biggest issues is that the country has lost its excitement about it. It’s not getting a huge amount of public support or interest. That’s not true in some of the other relatively wealthy countries. For example, Japan has an excellent school meal program. Finland is probably the best in the world. France and Italy have decent programs.

I had an Italian friend who used to bring me menus from the school meal program, and it reads like a fancy restaurant menu. And not only is it really cool food, but they also give parents advice on how to complement what they have at school with what they’re going to have for dinner. Those programs are getting much more public attention and support. I think parents and others are much more engaged, much more involved than in much of the U.S.

The U.S. program has succeeded in feeding kids relatively nutritious food for decades, which is pretty darn important, but I do think it could be improved.

“Probably the biggest issue in the US is the [larger] food environment. We are dealing with advertisements and marketing and fast food and what’s cheap and available in your neighborhood.”

How can it be improved?

In the U.S., time is money. And one thing that really upsets me about the school meal programs is that they’ve gotten squeezed in time. The more time you have at lunchtime, the more likely you are to eat a full menu, including fruits and vegetables. There also needs to be time to socialize over meals; it’s hugely important.

Countries that are doing a really spectacular job [have students] actually spend time at the lunch table and they learn things like table manners, nutrition, and how to serve and receive food politely. There’s just no time for in the American school lunch program. By the time you get your meal, you’ve got five, 10 minutes maximum to actually eat it.

Keeping it national is another thing. This movement for universally free school meals is really important. But if it becomes a state-by-state thing with no comparable rules and procedures across 50 states, it could get pretty rocky.

We need to simplify the school meal rules so that your average parent can understand it, your average school lunch [worker] can understand it, and the community can figure it out and support it. I think we can do a better job of integrating a food and nutrition education into our curriculum. School lunch is a separate thing in the U.S. It’s not, “Here’s where your food comes from and here’s how it’s grown.” There are gardens in a lot of schools, but not everywhere. And it isn’t just integrated into [most students’] everyday thinking and activities.

Probably the biggest issue in the U.S. is the [larger] food environment. We are dealing with advertisements and marketing and fast food and what’s cheap and available in your neighborhood. That is surrounding every nutritional problem in the U.S., including school kids having choices, particularly adolescents. We’re not effectively addressing that and it’s causing huge, expensive problems of health and financial issues in the U.S. which largely link back to what food kids are eating.

They do a whole child’s approach in Finland. So it’s everything outdoors, indoors, exercise, sports, lunchroom, manners. The kids are involved in planning and implementing the school meal program. They have meals together. There’s respect for their different cultures and food needs and desires. They have the children and parents involved in deciding what vending machines can provide. They have them involved and testing and approving menus. It’s an integrated approach with nutrition, education, and knowledge about where their food comes from built right into it. It’s really a fabulous program and it has been going for over 100 years.

In looking at the results from these global surveys, what limitations might there be? What gaps in information did you notice?

The biggest gap we had was probably how many jobs were created by the program. There were very few countries who thought of that aspect as a job-creation mechanism for youth and for women. We have very spotty data on that.

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What was the biggest standout from the last survey?

I think the number of emergencies suffered is just astounding. The pandemic was on top of those emergencies. So it’s earthquakes, floods, civil unrest, drought—anything that affects your program. Climate change is clearly there. And again, it’s usually those who need food the most who are having the biggest struggle.

“You can train thousands of teachers, but kids won’t learn if they’re hungry or malnourished.”

In both the 2021 and 2019 surveys, we put in a question about whether they had issues with waste, fraud, or abuse—corruption kinds of questions. And everybody said, “Nobody is going to answer that honestly.” But in fact, we got quite a few pretty decent answers about corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse.

We also asked a question about what good came out of the COVID pandemic. We got some fabulous answers, mostly about improved hygiene conditions at the schools. But that was another one that I thought no one would have anything good to say about it.

We have a whole new section on climate questions this time around, because it’s clearly impacting us much more than the world was tuned to.

Is there anything else that you want to make sure our readers understand?

Without the combination of good nutrition and good education, good investment in agriculture and nutrition . . . our future is stuck. You can spend all kinds of money on a school building and kids will never come if they’re hungry. You can train thousands of teachers, but kids won’t learn if they’re hungry or malnourished. School meals are a multi-sectoral investment, and it’s the three pillars of development: education, health and nutrition, and agriculture. And that means you’re investing in the pillars of development for the short term for the kids who are eating. And you’re creating a future that is healthier and more successful and productive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Katie Rodriguez was a 2023 summer intern at Civil Eats, supported by a U.C. Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism grant. She is a 2023 graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a reporter from the Investigative Reporting Program. Katie is passionate about telling stories of environmental health, climate policy, agriculture, and marine food systems. Her work has appeared in Inside Climate News, USA Today, Outside, and more. She is based in San Francisco and very excited about the Yucatán banana leaf tamales she recently discovered in her neighborhood. Read more >

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