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UN agencies: Restore school meals or ‘risk losing a whole generation’

World Food Programme and UNICEF call on governments to act on nutrition crisis as Covid-19 school closures reduce the diets of 370 million of the most vulnerable children by 40 percent
, By Peyvand Khorsandi
Schoolgirls in Beira, Mozambique, taking home rations before schools closed in April. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/Arete/UN Mozambique
Mozambique: Schoolgirls in Beira receive rations before schools close in April. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/Arete/UN Mozambique

Children are at the centre of a nutrition crisis, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF.

In a new report, led by the Unicef Office of Research – Innocenti, the UN agencies urge governments to prioritize the reopening of schools while making sure the health, food and nutritional needs of children are met through comprehensive school feeding programmes.

Haiti, Jeremie, Grand'Anse department, 3 December 2020
Haiti: WFP provides a daily hot meal to 237,000 children in schools such as this one in the town of Jeremie in Grand'Anse. Photo: WFP/Alexis Masciarelli

“Missing out on nutritious school meals is jeopardizing the futures of millions of the world’s poorest children—we risk losing a whole generation,” said WFP’s 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.”

A boy takes delivery of a box of high-energy biscuits at a school in Yemen
Yemen: A schoolboy takes a box of high-energy biscuits to his classmates in Aden. Photo: WFP/Hebatallah-Munassar
The biscuits are fortifi
Fortified biscuits improve children's concentration at school. Photo: WFP/Hebatallah Munassar

Out of 1.3 billion children excluded from school because of coronavirus restrictions in the past year, 370 million children for whom schools are a key source of daily nutrition have missed out on 39 billion meals—that’s 40 percent of their usual intake. 

‘COVID-19: Missing More Than a Classroom’, published on Thursday (28 January), suggests 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.

A volunteer from the Ugandan Red Cross at Napumpum school in Kotido in July—one of 311 targeted with take-home rations after coronavirus restrictions resulted in closures.
Uganda: A volunteer from the Ugandan Red Cross at Napumpum school in Kotido in July—one of 311 targeted with take-home rations. Photo: WFP/Hugh Rutherford 

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore added: “School provides so much more than a place of learning. It gives children a lifeline to protection and support, health services and a source of nutrition. 

“Too many vulnerable children have been cut off from their main daily food source since school closures began, the repercussions of which will be felt by them and their families for years to come.” 

Syria: WFP executive director David Beasley visiting Sinjar,  with his UNICEF counterpart Henrietta Fore in March 2020. Photo: WFP/Abeer Etefa

The report notes that more than 70 countries have delivered take-home rations, cash grants or food vouchers as schools closed. 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. 

“Schools are where poor families access support and incentives, both financial and non-financial, aimed at addressing structural inequalities,” Carmen Burbano, Director of School Feeding at WFP, has said.

Boy at outside school in Uganda
Uganda: A WFP backed school in July. Photo: WFP/Hugh Rutherford

“Without the school platform, and without the access to health and nutrition programmes, issues like hunger, poverty and malnutrition are exacerbated for hundreds of millions of children and their families, affecting their chances of ever recovering from the COVID-19-induced crisis.”

In a press release, WFP stated: “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 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.” 

Learn more about WFP and UNICEF's joint response to COVID-19