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Climate-friendly school meals are the future for Kenya's children

Smart Harvest

WFP school meals are served up at an educational centre in Kibera, Kenya. [WFP, Challiss McDonough]

Ten-year-old Kamila Madey in Mandera County could have been part of an estimated 2.5 million children who were out of school in Kenya as a result of three years of drought, the worst in 40 years.

Her future is secure because of a government-funded school meals programme that is about to leap to unprecedented scales in the coming three years.

Schools in the East Africa’s marginal and food insecure regions face chronic low enrollment, poor attendance and a dismal completion rate. School meals are a proven way of attracting children to school to learn and get a nutritious daily meal – often their only meal of the day.

Kenya’s government has recognised the importance of school meals and has more than doubled the budget for school meals – from US$15 million in 2023 to US$35 million in 2024 – and set ambitious targets to boost coverage from the current 1.6 million to 4 million students by 2024 and 10 million by 2030.

But as climate extremes such as droughts and floods increase in severity and frequency, expanding safety nets such the school meals programme alone won’t be enough. A shift to ‘climate smart’ school meals must come into play for the expansion to benefit the entire ecosystem.  

‘Climate-friendly’ school feeding means diversifying diets, aligning agriculture and procurement to local food sovereignty, triggering the uptake of climate-friendly agricultural practices through schools as markets of smallholder produce and rethinking energy for school infrastructure and kitchens.

There are three key pathways how this paradigm shift could be achieved in practice:

Connecting smallholder farmers to schools.  Schools are a ready market for local produce and can trigger the adoption of climate-friendly agricultural practices through a new “home-grown” approach to meals. Local procurement will also relieve Kenya’s current dependence on imports of food for the programme and promote the local economy instead.

Promoting healthy diets on school menus. Combined with nutrition education, the programme can steer the demand for fresh produce and drought-resilient crops grown by smallholders, while fostering Kenya’s next generation of climate leaders.

Leapfrogging to eco-friendly, green energy for school infrastructure and school kitchens. Through this pathway, the school meals programme can help curb carbon emissions and deforestation and promote clean cooking solutions that relieve the strain on the local ecosystem.

Shifting to climate-friendly school meals is ambitious - no doubt. And it will require sustained domestic investments, significant co-investments of development partners and the private sector to realize it.

But the prospect for impact is huge: Adopting climate-smart school feeding now and anchoring it firmly within this scale-up plan would not only benefit the more than 10 million children in the schools, but their families and smallholder communities around. Millions of people could be cushioned against the worsening climate shocks and improve their livelihoods and the future of their children.

This opportunity is echoed by the recommendations of the White Paper of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition, an initiative of the School Meals Coalition. It states that school meal programmes are “…among the most politically influential and extensive of public food systems”. Worldwide, they reach 420 million children every day. Because of their reach and scale, “…they provide an exceptional opportunity for the implementation of climate-friendly policies, with enormous co-benefits for planetary and child health.”

On the flipside, not shifting to climate-smart local produce and green energy for school infrastructure and cooking would further promote Kenya’s carbon-lock in and intensify its dependence on foreign imports.

As a growing lower middle-income economy, investing in school meals means securing Kenya’s future human capital – the productive workforce so vital for economic growth. Climate-smart school meals might be the new pathway to a triple win for Kenya: to achieve development targets, transform food systems, and meet climate-goals.

The stakes are high, but Kenya has already made a commitment and more than doubled its national investments in the programme. The country is on the right path. It is now on the international community and private sector to join Kenya on this journey and set an example for the entire region.

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