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Why school feeding matters: Forum participants exchange views and outline development plan

On November 23 - 24, Bishkek hosted the 1st CIS Forum titled “School meals as overall development vector”. For the first time ever, officials from CIS member states gathered to elaborate a common strategy to boost the efficiency of school feeding programmes.

Spearheaded by the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Sadyr Japarov, the Forum was organized by the President’s Administration and the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States, with the support of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Russia’s Social and Industrial Foodservice Institute (SIFI).

The two-day event brought together members of CIS governments and international organizations. Deputy Chairman of the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers Edil Baisalov, Minister of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic Dogdurkul Kendirbaeva, CIS Deputy Secretary General Denis Trefilov, President of the Social and Industrial Foodservice Institute Vladimir Chernigov, UN WFP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific John Aylieff, UN Resident Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan Antje Grawe, UN WFP Representative and Country Director in the Kyrgyz Republic Kojiro Nakai, Deputy Minister of Education of the Russian Federation Denis Gribov, and officials from the Ministries of Education of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were also in attendance. Roundtable discussions were held with the participation of representatives of leading international institutions and experts in the field of education and private sector.

In her welcoming remarks, Minister Kendirbaeva emphasized that the Forum is a platform that enables participants to share best practices for the implementation of school feeding programmes across the Commonwealth.

“The main goal of the National School Feeding Programme is to provide primary school children with healthy hot meals because proper school feeding helps improve children’s performance and motivation to learn,” she said.

On the first day of the Forum, representatives of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan shared their expertise in introducing and improving school meals in their countries. The Kyrgyz side spoke about the experience of organizing field trips to several schools in Bishkek. The guests, in turn, examined the infrastructure of canteens, school menus, and methods of teaching children and parents the basics of healthy eating. During a visit to the Republican Competency Center, they were briefed on the procedure for training specialists in school feeding.

The second part of the forum took place at the Ala Archa state residence. Opening the event, Deputy Head of the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers Edil Baisalov emphasized that school feeding must be considered from a social perspective.

“School feeding goes beyond just providing children with nutrients. It is also, as the experience of many countries shows, an effective tool of government support for agriculture and the development of local communities. For this reason, the leadership of the Kyrgyz Republic views the issue not only as a social task but also as a significant investment and stimulation of economic growth,” he said.

Mr. Baisalov also thanked the UN World Food Programme, which is implementing the School Meals Optimization project in the regions of the Republic.

“Today, over 80 percent of schools have all the conditions essential for serving hot meals. Canteens have been renovated and provided with relevant equipment; qualified cooks have been employed. Regulations and requirements for school feeding have been developed and approved. A Republican Competency Center for training chefs and developing healthy eating techniques has been established. We recorded success together with our foreign partners,” he added.

Deputy Minister of Education of the Russian Federation Denis Gribov said that for more than ten years, in cooperation with national governments and our reliable partner, the World Food Programme, Russia has been implementing large-scale school feeding projects in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and several other countries.”

In his remarks, CIS Deputy Secretary General Denis Trefilov emphasized that it is impossible to talk about social development unless children are provided with quality meals: “Nutrition lays the foundation for the development of our children, shapes their physical and intellectual potential. Therefore, serving high-quality school meals is a contribution to the development of the nation and an index of state involvement in ensuring the security of our children. 25 percent of our countries’ population are children. The future of our countries fully depends on these 25 percent. Events such as this Forum have to be held regularly. After all, children must receive healthy meals even in the context of the global crisis,” he said.

UN Resident Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan Antje Grawe underlined the importance of cooperation between governments and parents. “The UN World Food Programme operates in 25 countries. Providing school meals for children is crucial. We can achieve results only through interaction with parents and the private sector,” she said.

Ms. Grawe also noted that Kyrgyzstan has an efficient policy on child development based on the Law “On the Organization of School Feeding” adopted in 2019.

UN WFP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, John Aylieff, praised Kyrgyzstan for its tremendous success in school feeding, the results of which are obvious. “At this Forum, we can solve school meals-related problems, and this is why we should work as a team and build up cooperation,” he said.

According to Mr. Gribov, over these 10 years, each country has obtained unique experience in legislative regulation of school feeding issues, collaboration with agricultural cooperatives, menu development, and staff training. Now is the time to exchange this experience, he believes. It is expected that the Russian Social and Industrial Foodservice Institute could become a common platform for the purpose.

“During the recent gathering of the Education Council of the CIS countries, we discussed the possibility of creating a CIS platform for school feeding. On the part of the Russian Federation, we suggested that SIFI can serve as such a platform. This organization’s 20-year activity in Russia and beyond is scientifically sound. So, it is capable of becoming a common platform that will scrutinize the experience of the CIS countries, outline methodological recommendations, and carry out fieldwork in partner countries to improve the school feeding processes,” Mr. Gribov added.

SIFI President Vladimir Chernigov described the ten-year cooperation on school feeding between Russia and the CIS countries as successful and positive: “We have been working with different countries for more than 10 years. The results of this cooperation prove that the efforts are paying off. The results are obvious and are positively assessed not only by us but also by other parties. We want to help our partner countries create a system we can maintain as experts and offer advice and solutions. Societies should be confident of the value, efficiency, and success of these systems. This is our strategy,” he said.

With such an approach, school meals in the CIS countries can be just like they were in the USSR: hot, nourishing, and healthy, according to him.

“I think that in 10 years, school feeding in the CIS countries will become what it was many years ago, during the Soviet period. This is not because we need to return to the Soviet past but because, at that time, children’s welfare was of paramount importance. We remember this well,” Mr. Chernigov said.

In conclusion, Minister Kendirbaeva summed up the results of the first Forum on School Feeding in the CIS Countries: “Our Forum is accomplished and goals are achieved. The main task was to examine the 10 years of experience in organizing school meals in Kyrgyzstan with the financial support of the UN World Food Programme. We discussed the experience of partner countries, we had the opportunity to ask questions and now we are hopeful that this Forum will become a permanent platform for achieving such an important mission as providing schoolchildren with quality nutrition.”

Based on the results of the two-day work, the Forum participants adopted a Declaration on strengthening cooperation in the field of school feeding in the CIS countries.

It is expected that the 2nd International Forum on School Feeding will be held in Russia in 2024.