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ROME – 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, the United Nations World Food Programme said in a report released today.
One in two schoolchildren, 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, 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 report’s authors said, 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’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 a coalition to support governments in the scale up of school meals programmes, working with development agencies, donors, the private sector and civil society organizations, the report said.
Between 2013 and 2020, the number of children receiving school meals grew by 9 percent globally and 36 percent 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.
In a post-COVID-19 world, school feeding 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.
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.
“WFP is fully committed to working with our partners to ensure that no child, regardless of where they live, goes to school hungry – or worse, doesn’t go to school at all. After the turmoil of recent months, we must seize the opportunity to start building the better world we all want to see,” Executive Director Beasley said in the foreword to the report.