One in two schoolchildren, or 388 million children worldwide, ate a nutritious meal in school every day until the COVID-19 pandemic closed classrooms and ended a decade of growth for school meals programmes, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said in a new report today, calling for global action to get coverage back to pre-pandemic levels. The State of School Feeding Worldwide report says that in 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 future. Brazil operates one of the largest school feeding programmes in the world, providing free meals to 40 million children. During the pandemic, the country had to quickly adapt its legislations and produce guides to help schools shift to the delivery of food baskets to students and, later, to safely reopen schools.
“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 kids go to school in the first place. It’s also the reason they’ll come back after the lockdown. We need to get these programmes running again – even better than before – to stop COVID destroying the futures of millions of children”.
Cooperation to build a better future
The report presents the Brazilian National School Feeding Programme (PNAE) as a case study and details its coverage and operational specificities. The PNAE caters to 40 million students in more than 160,000 schools, across 5,570 Brazilian municipalities. Around 50,000 daily meals are prepared with the supervision of more than 8,000 nutritionists. The programme is run by the National Fund for Education Development (FNDE) and is monitored by 80,000 School Feeding Board members.
The publication also mentions innovations developed in Brazil, such as the “e-PNAE” mobile application, that allows parents, students, teachers, nutritionists, school board members and the entire school community to monitor and evaluate school meals offered across the country. Through international Cooperation, many success cases, such as the Brazilian one, have been inspiring changes in other countries across the globe.
School feeding information networks at the global and regional level have been important for a for exchange between agencies working on school feeding and school health and nutrition. The WFP Centre of Excellence Against Hunger in Brazil is a major mechanism which promotes cooperation and currently supports 30 countries on a long-term basis.
“An important part of our mission here at the WFP Centre of Excellence in Brazil is to contribute as a hub for knowledge building, capacity strengthening and policy dialogue. Our main goal is to help countries create and implement successful sustainable solutions to fight hunger and school feeding is one of them”, said Daniel Balaban, WFP Representative in Brazil and Director of the Centre of Excellence.
The power of school feeding
Between 2013 and 2020, the number of children receiving school meals grew by 9% globally and 36% in low-income countries, as governments expanded their programmes, according to the report’s authors, who noted that school feeding was 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: where there is a school meals programme running, 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 addition to that, 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.
What is next?
In a post-COVID world, school feeding programmes are even more of a priority investment, the report’s authors said, because they help countries to build a healthy and educated population, while supporting national growth and promoting economic development.
In 2021, WFP will build a coalition to ensure that coverage returns to pre-pandemic levels and then expands to reach some 73 million vulnerable children who were missing out on meals even before. It will work with development agencies, donors, the private sector, and civil society organizations to support governments in the scale up of school meals programmes, the report said.