More than 39 billion children across the world missed their in-school meals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report released on Thursday by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti and the World Food Programme (WFP).
The report titled ‘COVID-19: Missing More Than a Classroom’ also notes that 370 million children worldwide, many of whom are reliant on school meals as a key source of their daily nutrition, have missed 40 per cent of in-school meals as COVID-19 restrictions shuttered classrooms.
“Despite clear evidence that schools are not primary drivers of COVID-19 infections, millions of children are facing school closures around the world,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“Children who depend on schools for their daily meals are not only losing out on an education but also on a reliable source of nutrition”, added she.
“As we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and await vaccine distribution, we must prioritise the reopening of schools and take action to make them as safe as possible, including through renewed investments in proven infection prevention measures like clean water and soap in every school around the world”, Fore continued.
Latest estimates show that 24 million schoolchildren are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic – reversing progress made in school enrolment in recent decades. School meals can be an incentive for the most vulnerable children to return to school.
“Missing out on nutritious school meals is jeopardising the futures of millions of the world’s poorest children. We risk losing a whole generation,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley.
“We must support governments to safely reopen schools and start feeding these children again. For many, the nutritious meal they get in school is the only food they will receive all day”, Beasley said.
During the pandemic, there has been a 30 per cent overall reduction in the coverage of essential nutrition services including school feeding, micronutrient supplementation, and nutrition promotion programmes in low- and middle-income countries, as well as programmes for the treatment of severe malnutrition in children. Due to nationwide lockdown in some countries, all school feeding programmes were cancelled.
Global data on the overall impact of school closures on children’s nutrition is limited.
However, country-level studies, previous knowledge of the impact of crises on food security and nutrition, and existing nutrition deficits among school-age children and adolescents are cause for significant concern, the report says.
Pre-pandemic survey data from 68 countries show that, before COVID-19 hit, around 50 per cent of children aged 13 to 17 years-old reported feelings of hunger.
Further data from 17 countries showed that, in some countries, up to two thirds of adolescents aged 15–19 were underweight. And more than half of adolescent girls in South Asia were anaemic.
The worst-hit areas during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa saw rising food insecurity in countries already facing high levels of malnutrition.
This same trend has already been seen in many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic including in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Schools meals are not only vital in ensuring children’s nutrition, growth and development, they also provide a strong incentive for children – especially girls and those from the poorest and most marginalised communities – to return to school once restrictions are lifted.
The longer children are out of school, the greater the risk that they will drop out of education altogether. Girls face the added risk of forced transactional sex or early marriage.
The report notes that more than 70 countries have delivered take-home rations, cash transfers or food vouchers, providing a valuable, interim solution for millions of children.
In the first nine months of 2020, more than 13 million schoolchildren received WFP school-based support as compared to 17.3 million the previous year.
UNICEF and WFP are urging governments to prioritise schools for reopening while making sure that the health, food and nutritional needs of children are met through comprehensive, high-quality school feeding programmes.