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Pandemic derails historic advances in children’s access to school meals

New report finds school closures led to 370 million schoolchildren losing their one reliable daily meal
 Aziza, seventh grade, eats a date bar in a classroom at Salah Al-Din School in Sana'a city. Credit: WFP/Ahmed Haleem

The COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing a decade of hard-won gains in global efforts to provide nutritious food to the world’s most vulnerable children through a free daily meal in school, according to a new World Food Programme (WFP) report.

The report was a collaboration between 163 countries, 25 agencies and 120 contributors. The analysis and approach used for this report were based on a global vision developed by Professor Donald Bundy from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and WFP school feeding senior adviser, and Carmen Burbano de Lara, Director of School Based Programmes at WFP.

The driving vision was for access to school-based health and nutrition services from birth to adulthood, supporting long-term health and promoting learning. The ultimate aim is to help children to achieve their full potential - something which benefits them individually and builds human capital across their society.

This is especially important in strengthening self-agency for girls: helping them stay in school and gain an education, with life-changing consequences such as life-time earnings rise, while child marriage and teen pregnancies decrease.

One in two school children, or 388 million children worldwide, were receiving school meals when the pandemic struck, the highest number in history, according to the State of School Feeding Worldwide report. By April 2020, 161 countries had closed their schools and 370 million children were suddenly deprived of what for many was their only nutritious meal of the day.

For governments, the lockdowns shone a spotlight on the critical role played by school health in supporting the most vulnerable children and protecting their futures, according to the report. The authors call for global action to get coverage back to pre-pandemic levels and to expand further to reach some 73 million vulnerable children who were missing out on meals even before the pandemic.

Donald Bundy, Professor of Epidemiology and Development at LSHTM, said: “The school closures have deprived 1.5 billion school children from access to education and school health and nutrition services. Marcus Rashford has helped us see the consequent inequalities in rich countries, but in low resource settings it is much worse. 370 million schoolchildren suddenly lost their one reliable daily meal. 

“LSHTM has already developed a school-based interventions interest group, and with support from the UN World Food Programme, Dubai Cares and other development partners is establishing a Global School Health Research Consortium to help guide countries in building back better.”

WFP Executive Director David Beasley said: “School feeding is a game changer - for children, for communities and for countries. That one meal a day is often the reason hungry children go to school in the first place. It’s also a powerful incentive to make sure they’ll come back after lockdown ends. We need to get these programmes running again - even better than before - to stop COVID destroying the futures of millions of the world’s most vulnerable children.”

In 2021, WFP will build the Global School Health Research Coalition – hosted at LSHTM – to support governments in the scale-up of school health and nutrition programmes, working with development agencies, donors, the private sector and civil society organizations. Between 2013 and 2020, the number of children receiving school meals grew by 9% globally and 36% in low-income countries, as governments expanded their programmes and made school feeding the world’s most extensive social safety net. This platform also delivered complementary health interventions in more than 90% of countries, such as deworming, WASH, menstrual hygiene management and vision screening.

Studies have shown that in the life of a child from a poor family, school meals can have major impact. They stave off hunger, support long-term health and help a child learn and thrive. This is especially true for girls: in places where there is a school meals programme, girls stay in school longer, child marriage rates go down and teen pregnancies decrease.

When they use locally produced food, school meals programmes can also boost a community’s economy.  They create demand for more diverse, nutritious food, and create stable markets, supporting local agriculture, and strengthening local food systems. Efficient school meals programmes yield returns of up to US$ 9 for every US$ 1 invested. They also create jobs; according to WFP calculations, some 1,668 new jobs are created for every 100,000 children fed.

In a post-COVID-19 world, school health programmes are even more of a priority investment, the State of School Feeding Worldwide report said, because they help countries to build a healthy and educated population, while supporting national growth and promoting economic development.  The aim of the Global School Health Research Consortium at LSHTM is to help turn this hope into a reality.

Publication

United Nations World Food Programme 2020. State of School Feeding Worldwide 2020. World Food Programme.

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