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RAES network can support school feeding in LAC and in the world, says Israel Ríos, nutrition officer of FAO Mesoamerica

Paulo Beraldo

The Sustainable School Feeding Network (RAES, for its acronym in Spanish) can support the consolidation and strengthening of school feeding not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also in other countries, evaluates Israel Ríos-Castillo, nutrition officer of the sub-regional office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Panama.

In an interview with the RAES platform, Israel points out that school feeding is a powerful tool capable of promoting better eating habits, generating a new, more sustainable food culture, especially with public purchases from local agriculture. In addition to guaranteeing the human right to food for around 87 million students in Latin America and the Caribbean, Ríos points out that this public policy generates great returns for the societies that invest in it. Below the complete interview.

Israel Ríos, nutrition officer of the sub-regional office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Panama

What is the importance of a more articulated and consolidated network of countries focused on school feeding, materialized in this platform?

This platform is the tool that connects us around school feeding, without language limits, with content in English, Spanish and Portuguese. It is the way to keep each and every one of us in touch, updated and to continue advocating for fair, inclusive and above all healthy school meals.

I think we are in a moment of growth as a network. Not only in the Latin American area. But why not go further? The RAES can be a platform with a global reach that benefits all people and brings lessons learned from LAC to other regions of the planet about what is being achieved in school feeding.

How do you evaluate the fact that Brazil has been making an effort to implement and strengthen the RAES in recent years and has been promoting cooperation on school feeding since 2009 with FAO?

Brazil is the model that we have used in this cooperation agreement between FAO and the Brazilian Government to build and expand a vision of universal human right that school feeding has today in Latin America and the Caribbean. Before the support of the project with Brazil, there were isolated school feeding programs, some with deliveries of glasses of milk, cookies. And in some countries there was absolutely nothing.

With the development and support of the Brazil-FAO International Cooperation, we have managed to move the discussion on school feeding to a level of guarantee of rights and on the human right to adequate food. Today that is already clear in the vast majority of countries.

Therefore, we are going to continue with this effort from the cooperation to strengthen and consolidate what has already been advanced. We have achieved a lot in strengthening the school feeding policy in these countries with which we work. Today several countries already have school feeding laws and have stronger and more efficient school feeding programs, understanding that the delivery of food in schools is a vehicle to combat poverty, malnutrition and improve education.

Another achievement of this joint work in the region is the Sustainable Schools methodology, which has already reached more than 23,000 schools. Could you comment about it?

This methodology is a very broad concept that considers school feeding as an element that catalyzes other advances and impacts. Through the meal that the child receives in a school, hunger is combated, it is ensured that the students receives adequate, sufficient, innocuous, nutritious food, with cultural relevance, thus combating food insecurity and other problems, such as malnutrition. At the same time, public purchases of local food favor family farmers and develop the local economy. In addition to that, the Sustainable Schools methodology has other components such as social participation, inter-institutional articulation and the use of pedagogical school gardens. These specific elements have a sustainable perspective that goes far beyond the act of delivering food and are in accordance with the goals proposed in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

After 14 years of work, what challenges and goals are still in sight for the future?

We have an enormous challenge that is the fulfillment of the goals for sustainable development until 2030. It will be important to make visible the contribution of food in the development for this agenda, especially to the SDG 2 (zero hunger), the SDG 1 (end of poverty), and to the themes of health, education and gap of gender, for instance. Another challenge is to integrate a conscientious look at the environmental aspects from school meals.

School feeding has this wonderful ability to generate environmental awareness that allows us to take care of the planet’s health, promote a better, more sustainable food culture, avoid the use of products that pollute the environment, promote the consumption of healthy foods, especially local production. These will be key actions and skills for life and for sustainable development.

We will also have to combat all forms of malnutrition, especially the obesity epidemic that we are facing today in the region. It is important that, from school feeding and the components of food and nutrition education, emerge ways to combat obesity and overweight more effectively, training teachers, the educational community, students, and parents. And of course I cannot stop talking about the financial, budgetary and human resources aspects. That should not be a limitation. It is key in any policy, in addition to aspects related to monitoring and evaluation. And sometimes there is not enough data regarding the impacts that are desired, such as combating overweight or improving learning indicators.

You have mentioned budget, which in fact is a theme repeated in our events and actions as a difficulty… How to raise awareness about the importance of this theme to the politicians and lawmakers?

It is necessary to demonstrate that it is a public investment with great returns to society. Investing in school feeding from infancy is investing in the population that is strengthening and consolidating its eating habits. If we don’t invest on it, we will have a future generation with chronic diseases, obesity, overweight, and unhealthy people. Investing in education is one of the main policies for social protection and productive social inclusion. That is why school feeding laws are important for establishing a budget and financial allocation mechanisms.

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