“The school meals coalition is based on a decade of evidence” – a Q&A with WFP’s Carmen Burbano

Credit: WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud

In an evidence story with Carmen Burbano, WFP’s Director of School Based Programmes, shares more about the recent WFP Evaluation on the contribution of School Feeding Activities to the Achievement of the SDGs, and how evidence helped shape the School Meals Coalition.

One phrase that stands out in the school feeding strategy 2020-2030 is that “we invest in learning, but not in the learner”. What dialogues emerged from the Food Systems Summit to show that this is shifting?

The conversations at the Food Systems Summit helped to move the needle on a number of topics, and we were especially successful in positioning school feeding. Triggered by the COVID pandemic, the dialogue demonstrated an increased realization that we need to tackle current challenges by engaging with several sectors at once and that school meals can be a platform to do just that. It can help to address issues related to education, but at the same time help children learn to eat better, provide markets to farmers, create jobs locally and in general, support communities to become more resilient.

It also allowed us to highlight that the issues affecting children’s access to education and very poor learning have to do not only with the provision of education (teachers, classrooms, textbooks) but also with how healthy and ready to learn children are, and how able their families are to send them to school.

One of the biggest signs of progress at the Summit, is the conversation that was started with the School Meals Coalition around the use of multi-sectoral approaches in education. There was a need expressed for increased coordination and synergies to benefit various actors, and the idea that the education sector needs to care not only about the provision of education, but also the well-being of children. And this depends on several factors including the food and health systems that they’re exposed to, and the social protection and safety nets of their families, which all determine whether a child can learn or not.

One of the biggest signs of progress at the Summit, is the conversation that was started with the School Meals Coalition around the use of multi-sectoral approaches in education

 

The School Meals Coalition has been a major achievement. What role can or has evaluation played in this initiative?

Well, I certainly think a big reason why the School Meals Coalition had such a clear consensus among Member States at the Summit is because it is based on more than a decade of research, evidence, and evaluations.

This is not an effort that just came out this year, or a communications campaign that isn’t rooted in substance. It’s a very evidence-based, substantive discussion that over the last 10-12 years said, ‘we need to change the paradigm. We need to shift the way we’re thinking about nutrition, the well-being of children, human capital, and understanding that we need to support children in a continuum.’ In fact, the first 1,000 days are very important but so are the next 7,000 days of a child’s life (or until they become adults at around 21 years old). There is an emerging consensus now that we need to think about what that sustained support looks like. I think the contributions that evidence have made in building this global consensus, are huge.

We have managed to create a movement globally, but the only reason why we were able to do that was because we had several years of investment in research and evaluation.

We have managed to create a movement globally, but the only reason why we were able to do that was because we had several years of investment in research and evaluation

 

Could you name 3 points that stood out for you from the school feeding evaluation published in May 2021 on WFP’s readiness to implement the 2020-2030 school feeding strategy?

It’s difficult to share just three points. The evaluation was extremely rich and very important for us.

I would say the first point is a clear call to WFP to think about how we can better protect our work in school feeding, and school health and nutrition at the global level.

One of the first lessons that for me was clear from the evaluation, is that we paid a steep price when we as an organization underinvested in school feeding corporately a few years ago. When we dismantled our capacity at HQ level, the evaluation clearly documented the loss of momentum, the weakened partnerships and the loss of space for WFP internationally. We can’t afford to do that again.

Over the last few years, we’ve tried to learn from that. School health and nutrition and school feeding is now clearly included in the new strategic plan as a flagship area for WFP. We also have a good school health and nutrition strategy and we are working on a new policy that will go to the Board in 2023. All of this will hopefully serve to institutionalize our efforts.

A second big finding from the evaluation is that if we are going to evolve and deliver on the promises of our strategy, we need to look at our capacities, our staffing profiles and our workforce. We need to determine how WFP can increase our capacities to engage with governments in policy dialogue, influencing policies at the country level and at upstream influencing of budgetary decisions, as well as policy decisions and strategic partnerships.

And the third takeaway, is the enormous value of the investment WFP has made in evidence, research and evaluations over the years. But we can’t stay there. We need to put together a new research agenda and bring to the table, credible research partners to help us think through the next frontier of that evidence-base.

We have a new Theory of Change for WFP school feeding operations that has been recently finalized and we will be working on the new corporate results framework, and new indicators. This is also why the new research consortium established with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is so important.

We need to put together a new research agenda and bring to the table, credible research partners to help us think through the next frontier of that evidence-base

 

What has been the biggest lesson you have learnt or insight you have gained from the school feeding evaluation?

I think it’s like everything in life: you get out of these exercises, what you put into them. For us, we invested a lot in engaging with the evaluation process starting from myself all the way down to each of my different teams.

Our attitude in this evaluation really was to see it as a partnership. We viewed it as an exercise that was going to be a very valuable investment of our time, and that if we invested in sharing with them our challenges, our preoccupations, our concerns and our questions, then the process was going to be useful, and result in actionable recommendations.

Looking at the timing is also important because you need an evaluation to feed into important processes, corporately. The evaluation came when the strategic plan was being designed, so it was important for us to have that evidence. The evaluation also happened just as the Food Systems Summit was underway and informed in many ways the creation of the Coalition. It therefore came just at the right time for the right processes, corporately, so we were able to put it to work and use the findings and recommendations very quickly.

Our attitude in this evaluation really was to see it as a partnership

 

School feeding programmes are an increasing priority for national governments, and so is WFP’s efforts to build the capacity of governments to lead evaluations of their school feeding programmes. What are the advantages of joint evaluations?

Working with governments to be able to evaluate national programmes is crucial because that’s an integral part of policymaking and decision-making at the national level. Being able to work with governments on evaluating their programs, and then being able to provide credible evidence on how to improve is really at the heart of implementing sound sustainable, good quality programming.

And it would become an increasing focus for WFP as we position ourselves as a trusted partner of national governments in the future.

Playing a role as a technical partner that can help governments design impartial, good quality evaluations that are robust and rigorous is not only going to increase our credibility and ability to support, but also increase the possibilities of those evaluations to inform policy, better decision-making and better domestic resource allocation.

Working with governments to be able to evaluate national programmes is crucial because that’s an integral part of policymaking and decision-making at the national level

 

Can you think of practical examples where joint evaluations with governments on school feeding programmes have resulted in better practice on the ground?

I do want to point out one particular example that I was involved in, which was the evaluation of the National School Meals programme in Peru where we helped to design the evaluation. We put together an advisory group of international experts to support the government, interpret the findings of the evaluation, and provide policy recommendations. Often you have evaluations that are not taken up and fully digested by government, so having had international expertise comment on the evaluation and how the government interpreted the evaluation was crucial in its uptake.

In Peru, for example, the evaluation resulted in various activities that the government is now moving forward with, with WFP support. Among them, the introduction of fortified commodities into the national meal program. It also gave a big boost to the law of rice fortification. That’s now a reality in Peru. Millions of children are receiving fortified food.

And it continued to shed light on the issue that, again, there is a need to bring in a multi-sectoral approach involving different ministries. This forms the basis for new engagement between WFP and the Government on what a more comprehensive policy on school health and nutrition will look like in Peru.

 

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