Growing appetite for school lunches

But can the Nepal Government that has rolled out meals for students in 71 districts meet expectations?

In Bajhang district’s Bithadchir rural municipality nobody is happy that school meals now being managed by the World Food Programme (WFP) will be taken over by the Nepal government starting next year. 

“It’s the best program I’ve seen in 32 years,” says education coordinator Madan Bam, sitting in his office in the new municipal building in Deulekh. From this ridge you can look out over valleys on two sides, where small clusters of houses dot the hillsides.

Thanks to the program, adds Bam, students don’t go home for lunch and stay there in the afternoons, are more positive about learning, attend school consistently, and the dropout rate has fallen.

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A five-minute walk down the hill and across the street that bisects the tiny bazar en route to the district headquarters of Chainpur, an unpaved road leads to Shivbhawani Primary School. A dozen parents of the School Management Committee (SMC) crowd into an office with teachers and guests. 

“If the programme becomes cash-based the money can be misused and everything costs more in local markets,” says SMC Chair Suresh Mahar. “There are insufficient quantities in local markets so we would have to buy from outside. Then we face issues of quality and sustainability.”

WFP has been delivering rice, dal, salt and oil for school meals in various districts of Nepal for 45 years. The Nepal government has been gradually assuming responsibility for those districts and expanding into others, 71 to date, since it launched a separate cash-based program in 2008.

Today WFP operates in just six districts—with half of management costs shared by the government—which it is scheduled to hand over by 2024. 

All photos: MARTY LOGAN

The WFP program is referred to as ‘in-kind’ because it delivers the staples—sometimes procured overseas—to districts, where they are picked up and taken to schools then transformed into meals.

The government program is ‘cash-based’ because it provides money (Rs15 per student per meal, Rs20 in five remote districts in Karnali) to municipalities, which transfer the cash to their schools to buy ingredients and prepare lunches for students from early grade learning to class five, 180 days a year.

According to WFP, 99% of 163 countries have school feeding programs. Between 2013 and 2020 the proportion of school children receiving meals in low-income countries rose from 13% to 20%, adds its report, State of School Feeding Worldwide 2020

In that period, the proportion of low-income countries that had a school feeding policy increased from 20% to 75% and the share of domestic funding in overall spending for school feeding went from 17% to 28%, ‘reducing reliance on international donors’. 

One reason for the rise in school meal programs is simply the return on investment, says WFP. ‘Efficient programmes yield returns of up to $9 for every $1 invested, creating value across multiple sectors, including: education, health and nutrition, social protection and local agriculture,’ says the State of School Feeding.

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In terms of health, the report continues, while there has been a strong focus in recent years on a child’s development during the first 1,000 days, researchers now believe the crucial development years extend longer.

‘It is also important to support health and nutrition for the next 7,000 days to sustain the early gains; provide opportunities for catch-up; and to address phases of vulnerability, especially puberty, the growth spurt and brain development in adolescence.’

Nepal’s School Sector Development Plan (2016-2022) calls for ‘midday meals in schools to reduce short term hunger among school children, and address micronutrient deficiencies through multi-fortified foods and diversifying the food basket, including with fresh and locally produced foods.’

While the country has made dramatic progress in reducing childhood malnutrition in recent decades, it has stagnated in the past few years. For example, the 36% rate for stunting in 2016 was greater than the developing country average of 25% and the Asia average of 21.8%. There has been no assessment of the impact of school meals on child nutrition, says WFP. 

A series of 10 school meal menus developed by the government and WFP to match availability of food in different parts of the country lists amounts of energy, fat and protein per meal, along with vitamin A, zinc and iron. Each midday meal is supposed to deliver 30% of a child’s daily nutrition needs. 

The Nepal government has also shown its financial commitment to school feeding. From 2017 to 2020 the program’s budget almost quadrupled (from $20 million to nearly $70 million), and external support fell from $4.2 million to $2.8 million in 2020, according to the WFP report.

‘Between the Government of Nepal, USDA (US department of agriculture, a funder of school meals) and WFP, a total of 7.2 million children have been fed since 2017 with a yearly increase in coverage of about 186%,’ it adds. 

In 2019, school feeding in Bajhang’s neighbouring district Baitadi was transferred from WFP to the government. A two-hour drive from district headquarters Gothalapani, along a rutted, jouncing dirt road where groups of men and women heft rocks in place to repair retaining walls meant to stop landslides, is Dasharath Chand Municipality’s Shivshakti Nagarjun Basic School.

Covid-19 delayed the start of the locally-run programme in the school of 111 students. But since then the results have been positive, adds Headmaster Dev Bahadur Chand. 

“Students are more satisfied now because the meals change daily. With the WFP system there was only one item,” he says, sitting in front of the chalkboard in one of the school’s handful of classrooms. The new menu has also translated into more consistent attendance. 

Asked about the Rs15 budget, Chand says it is sufficient for now—for example, the school can afford to feed the children meat two or three times every couple of months—but the amount should keep pace with inflation, he says.

Across the courtyard, in a much smaller room used as a kitchen, eggs are boiling for the daily meal. Students attend school for a half day only on Fridays, so today’s lunch is smaller than usual. To date there have been no issues with the quality or availability of items for the lunches, says the headmaster, which was one of the main concerns in Bajhang. 

Read also: Food for thought for Nepal's nutrition planners, Marty Logan

In another classroom, students sit in front of green and white laptops for digital learning (DL), which we also saw in Bajhang. DL is one of the ‘components’ that WFP included in the school meals program.

Others are early grade reading, and instruction on nutrition and health and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). Chand says DL is the students’ favourite part of the entire program. “When they’re graduating and moving to a new school for class 6 they ask me if their new school will have the laptops.”

Despite the enthusiasm of both the students and headmaster, the status of the DL component seems unclear even in schools recently transitioned from the WFP program.

According to the Chief of Bajhang’s Education Development and Coordination Unit, Surendra Kathayat, DL—as supported by WFP—was a pilot program and has been phased out “but we can create a fund for repairs,” he tells us in his office in Chainpur. 

At the Nepal Government office that manages the expanding school meal program country-wide, the Centre for Education and Human Resources Development (CEHRD), Director Ganesh Poudel says, “Yes, we have a digital learning programme but it’s not directly connected to the daily meal program. Definitely the government is focused on ICT-based education.”

A 2021 evaluation notes that WFP’s remaining school feeding program needs to be gradually turned over to the government so it can become sustainable. ‘However, budgetary constraints of the government, especially in terms of provision of learning materials, infrastructure development, capacity building of school staff, poses one of the sustainability risks,’ it notes. 

Poudel acknowledges that risk. “Each child is allotted only Rs15, this is the main challenge. This amount is very low—prices are increasing day by day and there are management costs. How can we survive? We have very limited resources,” he says in an interview in his Bhaktapur office.

The other major challenge, says Poudel, is human resources. “Nearly 1 million people are involved in preparing and delivering the school meal program, directly and indirectly. Some cook, some manage, some pay. It requires a big amount of money and preparation.”

In WFP’s global strategy, Nepal is classed as a type 2 country. That means in its next multi-year plan WFP-Nepal will move from implementing programs to providing capacity-building and technical assistance to the government.

In terms of school meals, “while the government has really invested a big chunk of money over the past years… there are things which will have to be addressed,” says WFP Representative and Country Director Robert Kasca. 

“I’m talking mostly about the quality of the meals, the nutritious requirements, sanitary conditions in the schools and related infrastructure and also training of the cooks, which will definitely improve the quality of the meals,” adds Kasca. “These things have already made their way into the government’s official documents. Another possibility is expanding the school meals program beyond grade 5 up to grade 8, which we think would be a great investment.”

A 45-minute drive from the WFP office, through the Kathmandu Valley, is Tokha Municipality. Guided by recent training and orientation sessions that WFP gave to local government representatives from 48 districts, officials there are considering expanding school feeding through grade 8, says Manoj Kumar Sah, a WFP Program Policy Officer who is working with the government’s CEHRD. 

Not only that, says Sah, municipal officials would like to link school feeding to local agriculture. “I asked them, ‘what kind of little support can we give you’?. They said ‘we don’t want any support, we have enough budget. The only thing is we need a strong, legal policy document (to guide us)’.”

A 10-minute drive away from Shivshakti Nagarjun Basic School in Baitadi is Nanigad Basic School. One of a handful of officials, teachers and visitors sitting in a semi-circle of chairs outside the one-storey school building, Headmaster Deepak Raj Pant says he wants to run an early grade reading program but teachers need training, as does the assistant who cooks lunch. “We’re told to go to the local government for help but they don’t show any interest,” he says. 

Kasca says the participation and dedication of communities to school feeding is essential. “The (central) government’s funding commitment is one thing… the most important thing to me is that we get complete buy-in from the local communities… They (local representatives) do have money; it’s not that they don’t have it. It’s how they allocate and spend it.”

In Baitadi, Patan Municipality Deputy Mayor Saraswati Koli says that officials are committed to school feeding but funding is a concern because so many schools are requesting money beyond the Rs15 per child, for training and for cooking and serving equipment. 

Still, all 60 schools in Patan are running the government program and attendance is up. “It helps students to develop the habit of going to school,” says Koli over snacks at a local restaurant. Ingredients are sourced from markets and schools that have land are growing their own vegetables. “Everything is easily available and we include meat and eggs from time to time.”

The politician is worried that the school feeding budget could be chopped after the May elections (for which she hopes to get a ticket from her party, Nepali Congress). But even if funding is reduced, “the program will continue,” she predicts, “the schools are demanding it.” Adds Koli, “organisations like WFP are only showing the way—we need to build the road.” 

Kasca stresses that WFP will remain a partner in school meals long after the government has taken over in every district. Today, the parties are collaborating in a comprehensive upgrade of physical and human resources for school feeding in Nuwakot district. Kitchens are being renovated, menus developed and an SMS-based system tested to monitor how the Rs15 allocation is spent. 

“Our plan in the next five years will be to try to replicate (the upgrade) around the country,” says Kasca. “If we only do it in Nuwakot it’s not going to automatically happen elsewhere. We need to do it in many more places to start gaining momentum.”

He adds: “One of our priorities will be that, and we will be approaching donors to help out.”

Feed a student, nourish a family 

The school meal program was never just about food, the theory being that students learn better on full stomachs so that feeding them would also improve their learning. Today an additional aim of the program is boosting local growers and the economy. 

‘School feeding programmes that are connected to the local purchase of food (commonly known as home-grown school feeding programmes, HGSF) have proven their worth in middle-income countries,’ says WFP’s report, State of School Feeding Worldwide, 2020

‘The largest school feeding programmes in the world all rely on locally sourced food, which helps create jobs, make markets more predictable and helps establish lifelong dietary preferences for locally available fresh foods,’ the report continues. ‘There is a need to help low-income countries scale-up home-grown school feeding efforts as key elements of their national programmes.’

In recent years, the Nepal government, working with WFP, has been experimenting with HGSF in various districts. It started in 2017 in Sindhupalchok and Bardia, then expanded to Nuwakot, Jumla, Dhanusha and Mahottari, in one or two municipalities in each place. 

One analysis found that HGSF ‘increased the frequency of meal provision and meal quality in terms of dietary diversity and nutrient content.’ But rolling out the approach would require a 20%-33% increase in the Rs15 allocation to pay for non-food costs like fuel, transport and a cook, it added.

The most concrete result of the pilots has been the creation of 10 regional menus, to correspond with the foods available, and local tastes, in various parts of the country. “For now, when the government says homegrown school feeding program, it’s basically the scale-up of these menus,” says WFP School Meals Program Manager Neera Sharma. 

“Each school will select six menus for six days and based on that menu’s ingredients they will calculate how much is required on a monthly or annual basis and do an agreement with the local farmers or cooperatives to sell those products in that school so the money will remain in the community itself,” she adds. 

Officials in Tokha Municipality in the Kathmandu Valley recently told WFP-Nepal staff that they would like to link school feeding to local agriculture but are waiting for the central government to issue legal guidelines. Yet other localities are going ahead and planting seeds without an official policy. 

In Dasharath Chand Rural Municipality in Baitadi farmers have started raising chickens because they see that schools have put eggs on the weekly menu since taking over school feeding from WFP. A few hours’ drive southeast, in Patan Municipality, schools that have land are growing their own vegetables. 

Unsurprisingly, in the fertile Tarai district of Kailali HGSF is well advanced in some municipalities. At Janajagriti Basic School on the outskirts of Dhangadhi, the school invested Rs15,000 of its own money and got support from WFP to clear and fence land for a kitchen garden, which it is planning to expand, says Head Teacher Shanti Chaudhary. 

“Before if we ran out of something we’d have to run to the village and buy things. Now we grow everything here. It’s fresh and organic—no pesticides, no fertiliser. It’s great,” she adds. What it cannot grow, the school purchases from local women farmers, who have been organised with support from WFP. 

At the Centre for Education and Human Resources Development in Kathmandu, Director-General Ganesh Poudel says HGSF is included in government policy, but they are waiting for results from these various local initiatives before developing national guidelines.

This work was supported by a Global Nutrition and Food Security Reporting Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the Eleanor Crook Foundation.

Marty Logan