Starting next week, schools across the country will open. Children will return to school after a long winter break, vaccinated against COVID-19, and look forward to class lessons with their friends.
For more than 100,000 children, it also means getting at least one nutritious meal in their school kitchens, from local farmers. Those in boarding schools, as usual, will receive all three meals.
Since the successful handover of the school feeding program to the Royal Government of WFP in 2019, the National School Food and Nutrition Program has expanded its mandate not only to feed children, but also to take into account their nutritional needs for a better health, growth and physical and cognitive development.
Bhutan faces the triple burden of malnutrition with the coexistence of undernutrition, overnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. According to the findings of the Global Student Health Survey in Bhutan (2016), school children are heavy consumers of junk food. About 40% of students aged 13 to 17 drink soft drinks at least once a week and about 30% eat fast food at least four times a week. Anemia, an iron deficiency, affects 1 in 3 teenage girls.
In view of these nutritional needs, the school feeding and nutrition program strives to make school meals more nutritious, according to the specific nutritional needs of children, while respecting the allocation of Nu 1,500 per child per child. months that the government provides. The rice used in school meals is also fortified with multiple micronutrients, including iron and zinc, to maximize the nutritional value of the meals.
It is also important to use the allowance diligently, to source as much fresh local agricultural produce as possible so that meals are produced locally, cheaper and stimulate the local economy. Here, WFP supported the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry by providing an innovative tool called School Meal Planner (SMP) PLUS to link local farmers to schools. The online tool is used to design nutritious school menus, using local and seasonal agricultural products. Based on the menu, information on dietary requirements is sent to local farmers in advance.
In the four districts of Wangduephodrang, Zhemgang, Haa and Trongsa where the SMP PLUS tool was rolled out, around 2,000 farmers were linked to 96 schools. 14,200 children receive nutritious meals and around 1,300 women farmers benefit from this link. In these schools, using the SMP PLUS tool, the cost of meals was reduced by 15%, food and nutrient diversity increased, and the amount of locally purchased food increased by 20%.
With 101,800 students receiving at least one meal a day in their schools, the National School Food and Nutrition Program accounts for about one-seventh of the country’s food market. The SMP PLUS tool can be used as a platform to drive the transformation of food systems from a supply-driven to a demand-driven system. The tool can, as it has done for the schools where it is implemented, quantify annual food needs. This provides an assured market for farmers, while driving a shift in production patterns towards producing more local, fresh and nutritious foods.
Shifting the food supply from imports to local farms can create a viable market for the local agricultural sector, which must develop if food self-sufficiency goals are to be achieved. About 60 percent of Bhutan’s population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Import substitution, improved rural incomes, women’s empowerment, youth employment and the fight against rural to urban migration are some of the other possible outcomes of this partnership between the sectors of the agriculture, health and education.
Meeting the nutritional needs of children, however, is not the sole responsibility of the government. Families and caregivers should also be active participants. For this, it is important to raise awareness and educate the public on the importance of healthy food for a healthy body and mind, so that society can help build the vision of a healthier Bhutan. Currently, WFP and the Ministry of Education are collaborating with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on a national social behavior change strategy to improve the nutrition and healthy diets of school age children. It will include both community and school activities, including a healthy eating TV show called Pinda’s Magic Bowl and the development of an interactive game-based learning application called EduTrition. EduTrition is an innovative scavenger hunt-based digital learning platform where kids learn to eat healthy while moving outdoors and burning calories.
WFP’s partnership in school feeding dates back to 1974. After 45 years of providing food, WFP now provides technical assistance to the government on innovative ways to improve child nutrition and food production and incomes. farmers. The children of the past have now become adults and leaders at the helm of Bhutan’s economic and social development. Our vision for their children remains the same and our commitment unwavering.
Contributed by Svante Helms,
head of office,