WFP’s Menu Optimizer Tool (PLUS) selected for World Expo 2020

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A menu optimizer tool called PLUS initiated by the World Food Programme (WFP) as part of the nutrition programme is one of the Global Best Practice projects selected to be showcased for the World Expo 2020 to be held in Dubai in October 2020. Bhutan is the country of implementation of the tool.

The Expo’s Global Best Practice Programme invited entries of projects that provide real solutions to world’s biggest challenges. The Expo 2020 Dubai’s platform will reportedly showcase projects that have provided tangible solutions to those challenges while highlighting simple yet effective projects that work towards the fulfilment of Sustainable Development Goals at the country level.

The announcement was made at the ongoing United Nations General Assembly on 26th September.

The PLUS School Menu Optimizer tool is implemented in partnership with the School Health and Nutrition Division (SHND), Ministry of Education, for designing school feeding menus.

          The tool is an online software that, through an advanced mathematical algorithm, calculates the most nutritious and cost effective school feeding menus to ensure dietary diversity based on local food where possible.

“It will help substitute import goods by locally produced food to enhance local economy while ensuring our children eat healthy food based on balanced diet,” states the press release from WFP.

“The main rationale for the development of the menu optimizer tool is to address malnutrition while also supporting local agricultural production, linking local farmers to schools and addressing employment issue in line with an overall objective of increased self-reliance in Bhutan,” said Svante Helms, Head of Office, WFP Bhutan. “We support the Government’s initiative to enhance local agricultural development and the country’s self-reliance in food production.”

According to the WFP, the Menu Optimizer will increase access to food for school-age children with menus that will have an increased nutritional value based on locally grown diverse products. The Menu Optimizer algorithm can create nutritious, local menus at a lower price than the current ones, meaning more children can be covered with the same budget. In the absence of tools to carry out similar work, the selection of food items in school feeding is mostly based on available food at lowest price. However, when using the Menu Optimizer to create school menus, we ensure that the selected food basket is more cost-efficient while optimizing the nutrient content of the meals.

“The news comes at an opportune moment, when the Royal Government of Bhutan along with its various partners are in the consultative process to define the demand for agricultural production for the school and hospital feeding programme in line with the White Paper issued by Royal Government of Bhutan,” said Ms. Kinlay Tshering, Director, Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests.

“The impact of the Menu Optimizer in terms of enhancing nutritional value of the school meals, improving the proportion of locally produced food in the meals while reducing the overall cost of the school meals will be monitored,” she added.

The project is currently at a data compilation stage with the need to collect various required information inputs such as food price from different sources, cropping calendar, nutritional requirements based on age group and sources of food.

A workshop is planned in November with the relevant government stakeholders (Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture & Forests) for pilot of the Menu Optimizer in Trongsa in line with the government’s White Paper.

The tool will be first piloted in Trongsa by the end of the year followed by Punakha and Gasa based on lessons learnt on the pilot. The tool will then be used in the rest of the country to define the amount of nutritious, preferably local food, needed for the 74,000 children enrolled in the National School Nutrition Programme.

Tshering from Thimphu

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