Advocating for a School Meals Program
According to existing research, free meals at school play an important role in children’s physical health and cognitive development. They can considerably increase students’ academic performance as they are able to better concentrate on the learning process and participate at school for longer periods of time. Furthermore, free school meals also have a positive economic impact, creating jobs and boosting local production and supply chains. With these clear benefits, it’s unsurprising that 90% of countries in the world have some form of school meals program.
In Georgia, which is among the few countries without a school meals program, adequate nutrition during school hours remains a serious problem. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the National Assessment and Examination Center (NAEC), 77% of students reported sometimes (42%) or always (35%) feeling hungry when at school. The UNICEF Child Welfare Survey published in 2023 found that a mere 27% of children consume food daily at school, while 35% never eat at school. Children from families that suffer from material and social deprivation reported never eating at school at a considerably higher rate (45%) than other students, further aggravating inequality among school children.
To address these problems, the NGO Education Coalition, with support from the USAID Civil Society Engagement Program, has embarked on a widescale advocacy campaign requesting that the state, with the active participation of civil society, develop and launch a nationwide free school meals program. Within the project, Education for All has held social lab discussions with relevant stakeholders in five regions of Georgia; in these discussions, they’ve reviewed the specific needs in each region and elaborated on various funding and management models tailored to the needs and infrastructure of different schools. The organization has also launched an awareness-raising campaign explaining the benefits of school meals to the public.
While Education for All continues to advocate for this issue, the NGO Parents for Education has also been working to advocate for the ban of unhealthy foods at schools. The organization, which is supported by the USAID Civil Society Engagement Program, collected 10,000 signatures for a petition and submitted it to the Ministry of Education and Sciences of Georgia, the Parliamentary Committee of Science and Education, the National Food Agency, and the Public Defender’s Office. According to the group, many of the food products currently sold at schools (e.g., chewing gums, candies, chips) are prohibited under the Minister’s Decree #410. However, this regulation is not enforced in practice.
In October, Parents for Education met with the Minister of Education and Sciences of Georgia and discussed pressing issues at schools, including the problem of nutrition. At the meeting, the minister agreed to issue a new decree banning junk food at schools and ensuring more healthy meals and relevant hygienic norms are instated. The minister also agreed to assess the infrastructure and review development opportunities for schools (predominantly in Georgia’s rural regions) that currently have no cafeterias. He also pledged to engage parents and other stakeholders in future discussions around the development of a free school meals program.