COVID has left 370 million school children without their one reliable meal – what can be done?

Aziza, seventh grade, eats a date bar in a classroom at Salah Al-Din School in Sana'a city. Credit: WFP/Ahmed Haleem

A new research consortium led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and including academic partners worldwide aims to provide crucial evidence to support countries in ‘building back better’ from COVID-19, with child development at its core.

Funded by a partnership including the World Food Programme and Dubai Cares, The Global Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition will develop a 10-year research agenda to support governments and decision makers in re-establishing school health and school meals programs after the pandemic, and meet the needs of those left behind.

The Research Consortium will be officially launched at a special virtual event on 27 May 2021, including a keynote address given by Prof Michael Kremer (2020 Nobel Laureate in Economics), and with contributions from government representatives from France, Peru and Finland.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the worst education crisis in human history, with more than 1.5 billion children suddenly excluded from education. It has highlighted the need to build-back more inclusive, efficient, and resilient education systems which ensure the health and well-being of school children, so that they are able to attend school and are ready to learn.

Effective school health and school meals programs are one of the most impactful and efficient development interventions in middle childhood and adolescence, helping to combat child hunger, poverty and malnutrition. They attract children to school and support children’s learning, long-term well-being and equity in health.  School feeding contributes to the achievement of at least eight of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including those related to health, education and gender equality.

Professor Donald Bundy from LSHTM and Consortium lead said: “Every child should have the opportunity to grow, learn and thrive. By closing schools, and their health and meals programmes, COVID has affected the life chances for hundreds of millions of children.”

“The returns from these programmes are not only about health and development. They strengthen education outcomes and build human capital, they provide social protection for children in countries that often have no other type of benefit programs, and they provide markets for local farmers. In middle and low-income countries, every dollar invested in school health and nutrition yields nine dollars back in social returns. Healthy and educated children become more productive adults who realize their own potential and contribute to a nations human capital.”

While investment in the first 1,000 days of life is recognized as a priority for the health sector, the pandemic has helped highlight the continuing importance of health and nutrition during the next 7,000 days of child development, the years that are also crucial for education outcomes.  

At the beginning of 2020, national school feeding programmes delivered meals to more children than ever before, making school feeding the most extensive social safety net in the world. One in every two schoolchildren, or 388 million, received school meals every day in at least 161 countries. However, COVID-19 has left 370 million school children without their one reliable meal.

Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “The pandemic has left countries around the world with uncertain futures. Given well-nourished children are an important investment in a country’s development and future, young people must be at the heart of building back strategies. With resources often scarce, and with many competing interests, the Consortium comprises leaders in the field who will support countries to optimize strategies on how to improve and scale-up their school feeding programmes and develop a ‘safety net for a generation’.

The research will focus on identifying the most important drivers of development, so that countries can maximize the cost-effectiveness of their programs. This means addressing questions about the nutritional value of school meals and how health and nutrition at school age affect key educational outcomes, as well as measuring the less direct benefits for local agriculture. 

The Consortium will work with the African Union Development Agency, the World Food Progamme and Dubai Cares to create the first ever database that tracks the health and nutrition of school age children.

Carmen Burbano, Director of school-based programmes at WFP said “The Consortium will fill a crucial gap in research on what works best to support the health and nutrition of school-aged children. The wellbeing of schoolchildren is not being tracked globally and we need to change that. The work of the Consortium will ensure that governments have the right data and evidence to take informed decisions and strengthen and scale-up their programmes. This is the time to step-up and to work together to ensure that a whole generation of children returns to school safely and receives the support they need to recover.”

The Research Consortium is the first initiative to be launched as part of the Global School Meals Coalition, which is being established by a growing group of member states and aims at making sure that every child has access to school meals in every country by 2030.

Governments are committing to drive actions that can urgently re-establish, improve and scale-up school feeding and school health programs. With the launch of the Global Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition, the academic sector is joining these efforts and committing to support governments to achieve this goal.

The analysis and data that underpin the Coalition for School Feeding are based on 15 years of research by partners including the World Food Programme, the World Bank, the Partnership for Child Development of the Imperial College in London, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, among others.

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