“The School Meals Coalition is based on a decade of evidence”: An interview with WFP’s Carmen Burbano

World Food Program’s director of school-based programs talks about the School Meals Coalition and the importance of evidence and evaluation in driving forward the initiative to grant every child access to a healthy and nutritious meal by 2030.

November 22, 2021 by Carmen Burbano de Lara, World Food Program
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5 minutes read
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The conversations at the Food Systems Summit helped to move the needle on a number of topics, and we were especially successful in positioning school meals. Credit: WFP/Giulio d'Adamo
The conversations at the Food Systems Summit helped to move the needle on a number of topics, and were especially successful in positioning school meals.
Credit: WFP/Giulio d'Adamo

As the world shakes off COVID-19, restoring school meal programs and school health is an urgent priority. At the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome 2021, 61 governments, supported by 55 partners including UN agencies, NGOs, academia and the private sector joined forces to launch the School Meals Coalition, aiming that every child has access to a healthy, nutritious meal by 2030. In this interview, Carmen Burbano, WFP’s Director of School Based Programs, shares more about the School Meals Coalition, as well as the importance of evidence and evaluation in driving forward the initiative.

One phrase that stands out in the WFP’s school feeding strategy 2020-2030 is that “we invest in learning, but not in the learner”. What dialogues emerged from the Food Systems Summit to show that this is shifting?

The conversations at the Food Systems Summit helped to move the needle on a number of topics, and we were especially successful in positioning school meals. Triggered by the COVID pandemic, the dialogue demonstrated an increased realization that we need to tackle current challenges by engaging with several sectors at once and that school meals can be a platform to do just that.

It can help to address issues related to education, but at the same time help children learn to eat better, provide markets to farmers, create jobs locally and in general, support communities become more resilient.

It also allowed us to highlight that the issues affecting children’s access to education and very poor learning have to do not only with the provision of education (teachers, classrooms, textbooks) but also with how healthy and ready to learn children are, and how able their families are to send them to school.

One of the biggest signs of progress, is the conversation that was started with the School Meals Coalition around the use of multi-sectoral approaches in education.

There was a need expressed for increased coordination and synergies to benefit various actors, and the idea that the education sector needs to care not only about the provision of education, but also the well-being of children. And this depends on several factors including the food and health systems that they’re exposed to, and the social protection and safety nets of their families, which all determine whether a child can learn or not.

The School Meals Coalition has been a major achievement. What role has evaluation played in this initiative?

I certainly think a big reason why the School Meals Coalition had such a clear consensus among Member States at the Summit is because it is based on more than a decade of research, evidence, and evaluations.

This is not an effort that just came out this year, or a communications campaign that isn’t rooted in substance. It’s a very evidence-based, substantive discussion that over the last 10-12 years said, ‘we need to change the paradigm.

We need to shift the way we’re thinking about nutrition, the well-being of children, human capital, and understanding that we need to support children in a continuum.’ In fact, the first 1,000 days are very important but so are the next 7,000 days of a child’s life (or until they become adults at around 21 years old).

There is an emerging consensus now that we need to think about what that sustained support looks like. I think the contributions that evidence have made in building this global consensus, are huge.

We have managed to create a movement globally, but the only reason why we were able to do that was because we had several years of investment in research and evaluation. One of those contributions was the GPE-supported publication called “Optimizing Education Outcomes” jointly developed with DCP and published by the World Bank, which made the case for school health and nutrition investments as a crucial strategy to ensure learning.

School feeding programs are an increasing priority for national governments, and so is WFP’s efforts to build the capacity of governments to lead evaluations of their school feeding programs. What are the advantages of joint evaluations?

Working with governments to be able to evaluate national programs is crucial because that’s an integral part of policymaking and decision-making at the national level. Being able to work with governments on evaluating their programs, and then being able to provide credible evidence on how to improve is really at the heart of implementing sound sustainable, good quality programming.

And it would become an increasing focus for WFP as we position ourselves as a trusted partner of national governments in the future.

Playing a role as a technical partner that can help governments design impartial, good quality evaluations that are robust and rigorous is not only going to increase our credibility and ability to support, but also increase the possibilities of those evaluations to inform policy, better decision-making and better domestic resource allocation.

Can you think of practical examples where joint evaluations with governments on school feeding programs have resulted in better practice on the ground?

I do want to point out one particular example that I was involved in, which was the evaluation of the National School Meals program in Peru where we helped to design the evaluation. We put together an advisory group of international experts to support the government, interpret the findings of the evaluation, and provide policy recommendations.

Often you have evaluations that are not taken up and fully digested by government, so having had international expertise comment on the evaluation and how the government interpreted the evaluation was crucial in its uptake.

In Peru, for example, the evaluation resulted in various activities that the government is now moving forward with, with WFP support. Among them, the introduction of fortified commodities into the national meal program.

It also gave a big boost to the law of rice fortification. That’s now a reality in Peru. Millions of children are receiving fortified food.

And it continued to shed light on the issue that, again, there is a need to bring in a multi-sectoral approach involving different ministries. This forms the basis for new engagement between WFP and the Government on what a more comprehensive policy on school health and nutrition will look like in Peru.

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