One in two schoolchildren, or 388 million children worldwide, were receiving school meals when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Now, the 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, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) warned in February 2021. By April 2020, 199 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 feeding in supporting the most vulnerable children and protecting their futures, the authors of WFPs State of School Feeding Worldwide report say, calling 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.
“School feeding is a game changer - for children, for communities and for countries,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley, “That one meal a day is often the reason hungry children go to school in the first place. It is also a powerful incentive to make sure they will 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 a coalition to support governments in the scale up of school meals programmes, working with development agencies, donors, the private sector and civil society organisations.
Between 2013 and 2020, the number of children receiving school meals grew by 9 per cent globally and 36 per cent in low-income countries, as governments expanded their programmes and made school feeding the world’s most extensive social safety net.
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.