PLUS one for School Meals: Enhancing WFP’s school feeding programme in the Dominican Republic
By Raul Saenz, Alexander Lozan and Vida Gabe with special thanks to Marcelle Rodriguez
Since 2018, WFP has been working on a menu creation platform, called School Meal Planner (SMP) PLUS, the first integrated digital solution for school menu creation. The platform has been developed jointly by the World Food Programme and Partnership for Child Development — Imperial College London (Adding their decade-long experience in Community-menu creation, with their tool Meal Planner, as a new modality in the joint platform) and AUDA — African Union; with the support of numerous partners such as the WFP Innovation Accelerator, Sodexo — Stop Hunger Foundation and NORAD.
Essentially, SMP PLUS is an online software used to optimize school menus by balancing nutrition, cost-efficiency, local sourcing and local tastes through advanced mathematical formulas. The software includes two other modalities: the ability to upload and jointly work on existing school menus (as is the case in the Dominican Republic) and the ability to integrate Communities in the menu creation process where necessary.
To use the software, menu planners input the prices of available food and set up some nutritional, gastronomical and sourcing requirements through its simple interface. The software then calculates a series of optimized menus with different food offerings each day for up to four weeks.
Significantly, the inputs can be customized for any country, so that each location can define its own aims for school menus. This software is freely available online and can be used by WFP and government officials alike. There is no cost involved in its usage, and the onboarding process can be done in few hours. Among the features of the software are:
- Optimization: The software allows for an artificial intelligence (AI)-based option with a simple interface, allowing the user to find the best possible school menu based on their preferences. It considers simultaneously cost, nutrition requirements, food origin and local eating habits to a complete menu composed of different meals every day. In Bhutan, up to 16 percent cost savings are being achieved thanks to this modality, while simultaneously increasing the amount of local product by 60 percent.
- Manual Customization: This feature allows a more traditional approach to menu creation. Users can craft their menu manually and see at a glance its cost, nutritional value and food sourcing. This integrating modality is the one used by the Dominican Republic to manage their school menus.
- Community Integration: This feature allows the user to build up a school menu at the grassroots level. The software is tablet-friendly and allows the user to not only involve communities into the decision-making process, but to also gather field data, such as food price information or local dietary preferences. Based on over a decade of work by Partnership for Child Development (PCD) — Imperial College working with communities and governments in a number of countries.
The software is available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian (and will soon be available in Arabic). It can be used online from anywhere in the world, without any restriction or cost. It requires only between two and six hours of free online training for a regular user to master the tool.
How is SMP PLUS being implemented in the Dominican Republic?
In the Dominican Republic, for example, a total of 1.8 million school children received some sort of government food support prior to the pandemic, with 1.2 million children enrolled in the Extended School Day programme, receiving a hot meal every school day. With the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country had to be closed, and many of the activities of the School Feeding Programme had to be suspended.
Despite this, the government continued to deliver rations directly to homes. Distributed rations included raw and non-perishable food to prepare at home on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, covering the nutritional requirements that were previously covered through school meals.
Instituto Nacional de Bienestar Estudiantil or INABIE, is the government office in charge of delivering the school feeding programme in the country. This programme is highly complex, with many different pieces and staff; everyone from nutritionists, to cooks to logisticians ensure that 1.2 million children receive a warm meal every school day. Managing the design and publication of different meals and nutritional values of such an elaborate system is a very arduous task and has been traditionally done using a large number of detailed spreadsheets. This system was extremely time-consuming and prone to error.
An expert from INABIE adopted the usage of SMP PLUS in June 2021 and used the tool to manage the current school menus in the country. Through its simple interface — refined after years of user research — INABIE was able to develop, store and share a large list of menus, as well as calculate nutritional features. The technical staff at INABIE participated in three online one-hour sessions on how to use the software, after which they became independent in its usage. Over the next few weeks, they used the platform to upload a whole list of pre-existing menus, facilitating its management and calculation of their nutritional value. After their successful experience, they are envisioning reshaping the way menus are created in order to take advantage of the optimization features of SMP PLUS, following the path of other countries such as Bhutan and Armenia.
Zara de los Santos, a Nutritionist at the INABIE says that SMP PLUS helps make better decisions faster and in a more transparent manner. She says, “The implementation of the SMP PLUS tool in the Dominican Republic is important because the software has given us access to more specific data, such as statistical and nutritional requirements. In addition, the tool has allowed time savings, which are very important in the processes we carry out here in the department. The tool allows us to evaluate in a more transparent and detailed way the circumstances and processes that occur within the nutritional evaluation that will lead us to make decisions that may positively or negatively impact the beneficiaries. It is a tool that has helped us streamline many processes, to have all the processes integrated in a single platform.” (La implementación de la herramienta SMP PLUS en República Dominicana ha sido importante porque es un software que nos ayuda a tener datos más específicos tanto estadísticos como de requerimientos nutricionales, así como también de ahorro de tiempo que es un muy importante en los procesos que llevamos a cabo aquí dentro del departamento. Nos permite evaluar de una manera más directa y más detallada las circunstancias y los procesos que se dan dentro de la evaluación nutricional que nos van a llevar a tomar decisiones que pueden impactar de manera positiva o negativa a los beneficiarios. Es una herramienta que ha venido a agilizar muchos procesos, a tener todos los procesos integrados en una sola plataforma.”)
Another user of SMP PLUS is Lucia Vasquez, a Nutrition Analyst at INABIE, who says that she uses the tool to calculate the menu for the whole country. “The tool is very friendly; it facilitates the work a lot. The same menu that would take me a few weeks to prepare, now I can do in one or two days. It really optimizes my time. It does not only optimize the process, but also provides better menu combinations for children at school.” (La herramienta es bien amigable, facilita muchísimo el trabajo y podría decirte que en cuanto a optimización, quizás el menú que me habría tomado una semana en calcular, ahora puedo hacerlo en 1 o 2 días.) Lucia adds that because her job is to analyse and provide recommendations, the tool helps her by giving her all the information she needs, “I can tell if, in this menu, this micronutrient is low or too high. And since there is also a component for costs, it’s easy to get an estimate of how much a plate would cost.” (Puedo saber si en este menú tal micronutriente es bajo o muy alto. Y dado que tiene también un componente acerca de costos, se puede obtener fácilmente una estimación de cuánto costará el plato).
Gabriela Alvarado, WFP Country Director of the Dominican Republic, shares the sentiments of the INABIE users: “Healthy and varied nutrition is the key to achieve zero hunger, which is why working with INABIE, the SMP PLUS tool, is a step to continue improving the nutritional status of school-age children with a diet based on habits.” Alvarado also noted the importance of the collaboration saying that, “Healthy meals and menus that meet nutritional needs are essential to end malnutrition. This joint effort translates into a commitment by the Dominican government through the Ministry of Education and INABIE to continue strengthening their capacities thanks to effective work tools.”
INABIE is considering an enhancement of their current processes, since the tool opened the door to new options: improved menus, easier calculations and logistic design.
Currently, 15 countries are at different levels of the adoption process, with a total of 34 in the pipeline. Over 1.6 million children have already benefited from menus created through SMP PLUS.
For more information on School Meal Planner PLUS, please contact the WFP focal point in your region or the core SMP PLUS team in HQ by sending an email to Raul Saez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.