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The first School Meals Coalition Global Summit place in took place in Paris, France on 18 and 19 October. The theme of the summit is: Investing in Future Generations: Human Capital, Sustainable Food Systems and Climate Change Action through School Meals. Amid recurring extreme weather events, soaring learning poverty, conflict, economic shocks, and a tight fiscal space, scaling up school meals can help fight these challenges. Healthy school meals can support goals in education, food security, nutrition, health, social protection, gender equality and transformation, agri-food systems, and climate action. They promote social equity, human capital development and intergenerational fairness.

There has been unprecedented progress in supporting children with school meals. According to the latest available data, 418 million children are currently being reached with school meals worldwide compared to pre- COVID-19 figures of 388 million children received school meals. Low-income countries have increased domestic investment in school meals by 15% and 4 million jobs have been created, mostly for women. Progress has been driven by national political leadership at the highest levels, channelled through the School Meals Coalition.  However, millions of the world’s most vulnerable children are still denied access to the school meals that could transform their lives.

School meals are a single investment with the power to multiply socio-economic and political benefits. The single intervention of school feeding can have effects across at least four different sectors – agriculture, education, health and nutrition, and social protection – with US$9 in returns for every US$1 invested. There is more to school meal programmes than a plate of food. Healthy school meal programs help to end child hunger and poverty and tackle multiple forms of malnutrition. They attract children to school and support children’s learning, nutrition, health, and long-term well-being. School meals can promote gender equity by supporting girls and boys to attend and graduate from school.

School meals are a unique opportunity to tackle the multiple challenges facing food systems. As a policy lever for food system transformation, school meals can stimulate economic growth and improve local food systems through promoting the production of diverse local foods to improve food security and nutrition, create jobs, and foster climate action in schools and local communities. They can make a substantial contribution to children’s diet quality and right to adequate food.

Investments in quality education and in nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life need to be done in tandem because school meals are not the only thing a child needs to learn and thrive. Similarly, there is plenty of complexity in food system reform and investments across a range of sectors is needed. But school meal programmes have an unrivalled potential to cut through that complexity, operate across policy siloes, and – above all – drive results.