By Naureen Hossain
United Nations, Nov 26 2021 – Meals at schools not only give each child a nutritious meal but increase enrolments, among other benefits.
This emerged at a recent launch of the School Meals Coalition, a new initiative that aims to give every child a nutritious meal by 2030 through bolstering health and nutrition programmes. The coalition comprises over 60 countries and 55 partners dedicated to restoring, improving and up-scaling meal programs and food systems. Among their partners are UN agencies UNICEF, World Food Programme (WFP), UN Nutrition, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UNESCO.
In the briefing, the speakers identified School Meals Coalition’s primary goals to restore school meal programmes to the status before the COVID-19 pandemic and reach children in vulnerable areas who have not accessed these plans before. The member countries’ political leaders have come together to support this “important initiative”, according to the permanent representative of Finland to the United Nations, Jukka Salovaara.
“School meals are so much more than just a plate of food. It’s really an opportunity to transform communities, improve education, and food systems globally,” he said.
School meal programmes are a significant safety net for children and their communities. As one of the primary means for children to get healthy meals, they help combat poverty and malnutrition. Their impact on education is seen in increased engagement from students. They also serve as incentives for families to send their children, especially girls, to schools, thus supporting children’s rights to education, nutrition and well-being.
“We see documented jumps of 9 to 12 per cent in enrollment increases just because the meals are present,” WFP Director of School-Based Programmes Carmen Burbano said. “So, these are really important instruments to bring [children] to school.”
The programmes would also provide opportunities for sustainable development practices and transformations in food systems. One key strategy is to promote and maintain home-grown school meal programmes, recruiting local farmers and markets to provide food supplies. Investing in school meal programmes, especially through domestic spending, has proven to increase coverage. In low-income countries, the number of children receiving school meals increased by 36 percent when their governments increased the budgets for these programs.
A WFP study found that at the beginning of 2020, over 380 million children globally received meals through school meal programmes. The closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic effectively disrupted those programmes, depriving 370 million children of what was effectively their main meal for the day. While there have been marked improvements since schools re-opened worldwide, with 238 million children accessing the school meals, there are still 150 million children that don’t have access.
The School Meals Coalition aims to close this gap through a system of collaboration between member countries and their partners. Among their initiatives will be a monitoring and accountability mechanism that is being developed by the WFP and its partners, which will be used to follow the coalition’s accomplishments, and a peer-to-peer information-sharing network, spearheaded by the German government, between members and partners that will use findings to influence their programme output.
Even before the pandemic, school meal programmes did not reach the most vulnerable children, 73 million, who could not access these programmes. Reaching children that have fallen through the cracks can be challenging, but it is significantly more difficult in countries affected by conflict or environmental disruptions.
At the signing, WFP Assistant Executive Director, Valerie Guarnieri said: “Simply put, sick children cannot attend school and hungry children cannot learn. It is essential we invest more in the health and nutrition of young learners, particularly girls.”
ECW Director, Yasmine Sherif said a feeding scheme made a massive difference in children’s lives.
“For many children and youth in crisis-affected countries, a meal at school may be the only food they eat all day and can be an important incentive for families to send and keep girls and boys in school. It is also essential for a young person to actually focus and learn,” she said.
The coalition plans to find ways to break the barriers to enable children to reach school or look for alternative learning pathways to reach children who could not physically attend school.
The factors that can prevent children from fully attending schools, such as poverty, complexity in family lives, or conflict, have only been exacerbated over the last nearly two years, thanks mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic. As more schools open worldwide, the restoration of school meal programmes is expected to provide much-needed support for children and their communities in turn.
“This is a very urgent and timely priority,” said Head of the Sustainable Development Unit of the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations, Olivier Richard. “Because school meals are very important for the recovery of our societies from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
To learn more about the School Meal Coalitions, you can follow their page.