As millions of South Africa’s learners returned to classrooms Monday, Feb.15, a new report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF has warned that children are at the centre of a “nutrition crisis” because of coronavirus restrictions, pointing out that for many, “the nutritious meal they get in school is the only food they will receive all day.”
In the report, the two UN agencies urge governments across the world to prioritize the reopening of schools while making sure the health, food, and nutritional needs of children are met through comprehensive school feeding programmes.
WFP’s Executive Director David Beasley said missing out on nutritious school meals is jeopardizing the futures of millions of the world’s poorest children.
More than 39 billion in-school meals have been missed globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic due to school closures, according to this report released by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti and the World Food Programme (WFP).
The authors note that 370 million children worldwide – many of whom are reliant on school meals as a key source of their daily nutrition – have missed on average 40 percent of in-school meals since COVID-19 restrictions shuttered classrooms.
The report alarmingly notes that some 24 million schoolchildren are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic – reversing decades of progress in increasing access to school for children in countries where “hunger is already made worse by conflict and climate change.”
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore pointed out that school provides much more than a place of learning, in that it also offers children a lifeline to protection and support, health services, and a source of nutrition.
The report further notes that more than 70 countries have delivered take-home rations, cash grants, or food vouchers as schools closed across the globe.
In the first nine months of 2020, more than 13 million schoolchildren received WFP school-based support, down from 17.3 million schoolchildren the year before.
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“Schools are where poor families access support and incentives, both financial and non-financial, aimed at addressing structural inequalities,” said Carmen Burbano, Director of School Feeding at WFP.
The WFP highlighted that school meals are not only vital in ensuring children’s nutrition, growth, and development, but that they also provide a strong incentive for children – especially girls and those from the poorest and most marginalized 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.”