© FAO/Fredrik Lerneryd
Written by Garima Bhalla (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO), Israel Klug (FAO), Jane Ambuko (University of Nairobi), Esther Mujuka (University of Nairobi), John Mburu (University of Nairobi), and Joy Mulema (FAO)
School feeding programs reach 418 million children worldwide, making them one of the most widely used social protection programs. Despite the scale, coverage gaps remain as only 18 per cent of children in low-income countries receive a daily, nutritious meal in school. The primary goals of school meals programs are to increase school enrollment, retention, and address hunger and malnutrition by supplementing children's food intake. This is especially beneficial for girls who are experience structural discrimination and disadvantages and often have less access to education and health services. Additionally, home-grown school feeding programs purchase foods from local smallholder farmers and provide it to schoolchildren. When designed as 'home-grown,' they can enhance agricultural value chains development and contribute to changes in food systems, encouraging local food production and creating jobs both on and off the farm along the food supply chains. By sourcing foods from local smallholders, these programs provide small-scale farmers with a more favorable market, offering greater certainty regarding market access and terms of trade. Furthermore, such initiatives can support climate-smart agriculture when designed to complement sustainable agricultural policies and programs.
The Kenya Home-Grown School Meal Program (HGSMP), launched in 2009, operates in multiple counties, striving to supply locally sourced food to schools and ensure students receive high-quality meals. Currently, it operates mainly in arid and semi-arid regions with significant food insecurity, malnutrition, and low school enrollment, retention, and transition rates. The Program’s central goal is to ensure that every primary school child receives at least one meal of adequate nutritional quality and safety daily. Importantly, it not only aims to reduce student malnutrition but also create opportunities for smallholder farmers, thereby bolstering local communities, economies, and food systems.
The HGSMP uses two main implementation modalities: in-kind and cash transfers to schools. The in-kind modality operates in arid counties utilizing centralized procurement and distribution of food. In contrast, the cash transfer modality is used in semi-arid counties with greater agricultural potential. The latter uses a decentralized procurement approach wherein schools receive funds to purchase food commodities from local markets, prepare meals, and manage the program. A decentralized approach offers a two-fold advantage: the potential to promote the use of locally produced foods, which enhances the diversity of the food basket, and it generally leads to smaller contracts, which are more manageable for smallholder farmers who may have difficulty fulfilling large-scale contracts due to limited supply capacities.
The HGSMP has immense potential but must navigate a series of obstacles to fully actualize it. These include:
- Increasing and optimizing funding: In 2020, because there wasn't enough money, the Program only reached about 16% of the kids in primary schools for a limited number of days during the school year. This shortfall highlighted the need for increased and stable funding to fulfil the Program's goal of ensuring a daily meal for every primary school student. Currently, the Government of Kenya has recognized the school meals programme as a critical safety net for the most vulnerable Kenyan families. As part of the Global School Meals Coalition, it has made a strong commitment to gradually scale-up the national school meals programme towards universal coverage by 2030. This is evident in the immediate steps taken to increase funding in the 2023/2024 financial year, from USD 15 million annually more than USD 30 million. The plan is to boost coverage from the current 1.8 million children to eventually 10 million children by 2030.
- Adjusting policy and regulatory complexities to encourage local smallholder participation: Strategic enhancements to the HGSMP could greatly improve its economic impact. For instance, adopting a 'buy local' policy, diversifying the food basket, and enhancing farmer productivity are key changes that could dramatically improve the return on investment. These adjustments can potentially increase the additional real income generated for every Kenyan Shilling (KES) spent from KES 1.35 to a remarkable KES 12.9. To fully realize these strategies, action needs to be taken across several dimensions. For example, it is essential to turn the aspirational policy goal of procuring 'at least 30 percent' of food directly from smallholder farmers into a concrete program mandate. The current lack of this mandate tends to favor traders over local farmers, as seen in case studies from Kajiado and Kitui counties, where the HGSMP has operated since its inception. These traders are not required to certify or demonstrate the origins of the food aggregated and sold to schools, leading to potential discrepancies in the intended support for local smallholder farmers. Concurrently, schools and traders should be supported and encouraged to source food commodities directly from local farmers. To facilitate this, the procurement process can be revised to include preferential treatment schemes, providing competitive advantages for smallholder farmer participation. At the very least, procurement requirements need to be simplified, and information on rules, procedures, and opportunities made more accessible, along with ensuring timely payments to smallholder farmers. These measures will reduce the high transaction costs smallholder farmers currently face. When complemented with measures to enhance their agricultural production capacity and commercialization, such advantages can increase food purchases from smallholder farmers.
- Ensuring the quality of food supplied to schools: Ensuring food quality at school begins at the farm level and needs to be preserved throughout the supply chain. At the farm level, smallholders need to be supported to meet quality standards. Post-harvest handling, food processing and adequate storage, including in school storage rooms, are crucial in maintaining quality, until foods are finally incorporated into meal preparation. Furthermore, processing can add value to produce by enhanced storability (e.g., drying of vegetable leaves). Evidence has shown that interventions which cut across the different supply chain stages are crucial for improving food quality management. For instance, bean producers experienced qualitative and quantitative losses due to quality deterioration of approximately 10.1% and 18.4% in Kitui and 3.5% and 6.6% in Kajiado Counties, respectively, with the most significant losses occurring during on-farm stages, including harvesting, threshing, and drying, followed by losses arising during the storage phase. Interventions aiming to improve practices and reduce losses need a gender-sensitive approach and consider gender roles throughout the supply chain. For example, within the HGSMP supply chain, women are the lead actors performing cultivation, harvesting and post-harvest operations, while males mainly engage in transporting, marketing, and storage.
- Preserving food quality at schools: It is crucial to improve knowledge, practices, and infrastructure pertaining to food storage in schools. The establishment of dedicated storage rooms, equipped with context appropriate storage technologies for specific types of produce is a key step. Additionally, staff managing these facilities should receive comprehensive training. In counties like Kitui and Kajiado, a major challenge impacting both the quality and quantity of food in schools is the lack of adequate storage facilities and their proper management. Current tendering processes do not prioritize specific crop varieties resistant to pests and often overlook the need for specific packaging requirements. Schools commonly do not have equipment or training to undertake basic food quality tests when receiving commodities (e.g., confirm grain quality grades and moisture levels). For instance, a cheaper bean variety, more susceptible to pests but easier to cook, was commonly preferred across the Kitui and Kajiado counties. Moreover, reliable supply of clean water and facilities for hand washing, meal preparation, and provision can reduce the chances foods and meals will contain substances that could harm students' health. Consequently, funding allocations per child should be revisited, considering not only the food basket composition but also food quality attributes and related requirements necessary to enhance storability at schools and achieve nutritional adequacy and safety of meals.
- Improving multi-sectoral coordination in planning and implementation: Effective resolution of these challenges necessitates more robust communication and collaboration between the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Labour & Social Protection, and other relevant entities at both the county and national levels. Strategic investments for increasing coordination are extremely crucial. Having an improved program's monitoring and evaluation system alongside standardizing definitions for 'smallholder' and 'local' is key. Currently, the absence of an electronic system to track smallholder participation limits effective planning and monitoring at both county and national levels. Additionally, integrating data from the Ministry of Education with the single registry being developed by the State Department of Social Protection, as well as the forthcoming national farmers' registry, would significantly enhance targeting and monitoring effectiveness across various programs.
By addressing these critical areas, Home-Grown School Feeding programs can evolve into potent tools that support children, communities, and local food systems. The significant growth in the HGSMP highlights a steadfast dedication to Kenya's constitutional commitment to ensuring every child's right to basic nutrition and aligns with the government's free primary education policy. The outlined improvements described here are crucial in ensuring that these foundational rights of education and health are fully realized, paving the way for a healthier, more educated, and prosperous future for all children in Kenya.
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