Nourishing children, transforming lives: An interview with GCNF's Arlene Mitchell on International School Meals Day

By:  Talking Nutrition Editors



  • In celebration of International School Meals Day on March 14th, we sat down with Arlene Mitchell, Executive Director of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF), to discuss the critical role of school meal programs in promoting children's health, nutrition, and development worldwide.
  • With years of experience and a global perspective, Mitchell shares valuable insights into the challenges and strategies involved in providing nutritious school meals, emphasizing the importance of partnerships, fortification, and a comprehensive approach to ensuring children's well-being.
  • Read on to explore how school meal programs not only alleviate hunger and support learning but also can transform food systems and lay the foundation for a healthier future generation.

School meal programs play a crucial role in combating hunger, promoting nutrition, and supporting the healthy development of children globally. By providing nutritious meals to students every school day, not only do these programs alleviate immediate hunger but they also promote long-term well-being and improve education outcomes. 

In celebration of International School Meals Day on March 14th, we sat down with Arlene Mitchell, Executive Director of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF), to discuss the far-reaching impact and importance of school meal programs. 

1. Could you please provide some background on the Global Child Nutrition Foundation and the work you do?

GCNF is a U.S.-based non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to ensuring children worldwide benefit from nutritious, sustainably produced school meals. With a diverse network of partners and a small team spanning four continents, GCNF supports governments and stakeholders through data, learning opportunities, training, technical assistance and advocacy. Key initiatives include the Global Survey of School Meal Programs, the annual Global Child Nutrition Forum, and our lifetime achievement award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to ending child hunger.

I feel incredibly privileged to have served as GCNF's Executive Director since 2014. Inspired by the founders' positive, inclusive, and dedicated approach, I strive to protect their legacy and follow their example while ensuring GCNF operates with the utmost integrity and demonstrates good partnership behavior.

2. Please can you explain why school meals are so vital for ensuring optimal health and nutrition for children? 

School meals play a crucial role in promoting nutrition and health among children for several compelling reasons. To begin with, hunger poses a significant threat to a child's health, nutrition, and overall development. For undernourished children, a school meal can alleviate chronic hunger and support their healthy growth. Even well-nourished children require sustenance during the school day to maintain focus and energy – hungry children can find it difficult to learn and are likely to be inattentive, disruptive, or sleepy in class.

Moreover, school meals can be strategically designed to address common childhood nutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin A, iron, iodine, and zinc deficiencies. In addition, children who are exposed to nutritious and appealing school meals develop a lasting taste for healthy eating habits that extend into adulthood. This early foundation can have a profound impact on their future dietary choices and overall health. Furthermore, school meal programs can be structured to stimulate the market for nutritious foods, ideally sourced from local, climate-smart, and sustainable sources. This approach has far-reaching, positive implications for both local and global food systems.

Lastly, healthy, well-nourished, and educated adolescents are best equipped to become productive adults and, eventually, nutrition-conscious parents for their own children. By investing in school meal programs, we are not only supporting the current generation but also laying the foundation for a healthier future.

3. According to the Global Survey of School Meal Programs, 87% of initiatives worldwide include the improvement of students’ nutrition among their key objectives.1 How do programs achieve this goal? 

By implementing a comprehensive approach that combines nutritional standards, diverse menus, fortified foods, nutrition education and complementary activities, school meal programs are making significant strides in promoting the health and well-being of children worldwide.

Common methods include establishing nutritional standards through national laws, policies, or guidelines. Training cooks in nutrition, offering diverse menus, using fortified and/or biofortified foods and providing micronutrient supplements are also effective strategies.

Nutrition education is a key component, empowering students to make informed choices about their diets. Complementary activities, such as school gardens, physical education, and sports help to reinforce healthy habits. Engaging parents through tasting sessions or nutrition education classes extends the impact beyond the school setting and fosters a supportive environment that encourages children to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles.

4. What are some of the biggest barriers or challenges to providing nourishing meals through school feeding programs globally?

Providing nutritious school meals on a large scale can be challenging and many of the challenges are beyond the control of the program’s management. These might include issues of inadequate financing, fluctuating food prices, maintaining quality, training, and retaining staff, and sustaining public support. External factors like wars and pandemics also impact success as they can disrupt supply chains, cause food shortages, and divert resources away from school meal programs. During times of crisis, children are highly vulnerable, and the loss of access to school meals can have profound consequences on their health and well-being. However, by prioritizing investment in school health and nutrition programs, we can build resilience and ensure that no child is left behind, even in the face of adversity.

5. How important have partnerships with organizations like dsm-firmenich been in supporting GCNF to deliver sustainable and nutritious school meal programs globally?

Partnerships with organizations like dsm-firmenich are crucial in supporting GCNF's mission. dsm-firmenich is one of many partners that help support GCNF activities and drive progress forward by meeting school meal program leaders and providing fortification training. The partnership involves mutual updates, participation in discussions and introductions to key stakeholders, and shared messaging and support for agreed activities such as International School Meals Day. dsm-firmenich's expertise in developing high-quality, cost-effective fortification solutions for staple foods like rice, flour and oils ensures that school meal programs can efficiently deliver essential micronutrients to children in foods they already know and love.

6. How do school meal programs help to transform the wider food system approach to one that prioritizes the nutritional needs of children and adolescents?

School meal programs transform food systems by creating demand for nutritious foods that meet the specific needs of children and adolescents. They provide a steady market for fortified foods, such as grains, salt, milk, and specialized products, which address micronutrient deficiencies common among young people. 

These programs also stimulate local food production, introduce biofortified crops and promote the use of whole-grain and nutritious indigenous foods that support the healthy development of children and adolescents. By prioritizing nutrient-dense foods tailored to the nutritional requirements of young people, school meal programs drive systemic changes in food production, processing, and distribution. This targeted approach not only ensures that children and adolescents have access to the nourishment they need but also contributes to addressing broader global sustainability challenges, such as biodiversity conservation and climate-smart agriculture.

7. What role do you see for fortified school meals in ensuring children are properly nourished rather than just simply fed? How important are micronutrient fortified meals for tackling issues like hidden hunger and supporting children's learning and development through school feeding programs?

School feeding programs offer an efficient way to reach large numbers of vulnerable children with micronutrient-fortified meals, helping to tackle issues like hidden hunger. These programs not only support children's physical health but also their cognitive development and learning outcomes. Studies have shown that well-nourished children have better school attendance, improved concentration and higher academic performance compared to their malnourished peers.

Good nutrition in the first thousand days of a child’s life is critical, but the first thousand days alone are not enough. Children continue to need comprehensive support and nutrition for their physical and mental development throughout their formative years. Fortification on a large scale is critical for efficiently providing needed nutrients to children, but fortification alone is not enough, either. Children need diverse, nutritious, and satisfying diets. They also need loving care, physical exercise and play, routine healthcare and stimulating education throughout their formative years. This helps them set up a strong foundation of good eating and healthy habits that should endure for a lifetime. 

Partnerships with organizations like dsm-firmenich are invaluable in this mission. By leveraging their expertise in developing high-quality, cost-effective fortification solutions, these collaborations help to strengthen the capacity of school meal programs to deliver essential micronutrients in foods that children already recognize. As a result, school feeding initiatives are more effective in promoting children's health, learning and overall development.

While there is still a long way to go in achieving comprehensive care for all children worldwide, we are on the right path. By working together with committed partners like dsm-firmenich, we can continue to make progress towards ensuring that every child can thrive and reach their full potential.

Partnering for nutrition: dsm-firmenich's commitment to children's health

dsm-firmenich is committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of children worldwide by partnering with organizations like GCNF and developing fortified staple foods, including fortified rice, flour, and oils, that help address hidden hunger. Through these collaborations and innovative solutions, dsm-firmenich aims to make a lasting impact on the lives of millions of school children around the globe.

Partner with us to transform the lives of children worldwide through impactful nutrition interventions.

Published on

13 March 2024


8 min read

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1 Access GCNF ‘Preview of the Global Survey of School Meal Programs’, [file].

2 Glewwe, P., Jacoby, H., & King, E. (2001). EARLY CHILDHOOD NUTRITION AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT: A LONGITUDINAL ANALYSIS. Journal of Public Economics, 81, 345-368.