As COVID-19 lockdowns stop school meals, there is growing concern that millions of children will become susceptible to malnutrition and other health risks as their immunity is diminished. Meals represent about 10 percent of monthly incomes in poor households. Taking away school meals adds a burden on families who may also be dealing with unemployment and other issues. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 368 million children worldwide are not receiving school meals, up from 300 million in mid-March. School feeding schemes are where some pupils get their only meal.
Across Commonwealth countries, over 133 million children (approximately 133,692,367) are missing out of school meals. The countries with the highest number of school meals deprived children are: Bangladesh (2,964,528); Ghana (1,700,000); India (90,414,539); Kenya (1,754,000); Malawi (2,936,455), Malaysia (1,459,665), Nigeria (9,829,603), Pakistan (2,077,958), South Africa (9,200,000), Sri Lanka (1,467,465), Uganda (3,651,225), United Kingdom (1,275,318), Zambia (1,193,996).
2,959,160 children no longer receive WFP school meals due to closures (Bangladesh: 442,656; Cameroon: 52,026; Eswatini: 24,000; the Gambia: 151,000; Kenya: 140,500; Lesotho: 144,970; Malawi: 602,455; Mozambique: 235,000; Pakistan: 18,369; Rwanda: 78,000; Sierra Leone: 301,727; Sri Lanka: 32,000; Uganda: 134,002).
Alternative solutions are under consideration by the WFP include providing take-home rations in lieu of the meals, home delivery of food and provision of cash or vouchers. Take-home rations would benefit children as well as their families.
Commonwealth countries are also having recourse to alternative solutions.
In India, several states, such as Kerala and West Bengal, are providing free food grains, subsidised meals and rations under a public distribution system for several months. The central government is making alternate arrangements to ensure that school-going children are not denied the basic nutrition they get through mid-at meals. The Ministry of Human Resource Development will ask all states to make arrangements of either delivering food grains or cooked meals to the homes of the beneficiaries, or depositing money in their parents’ accounts, until such time as school stay shut.
All schools in Antigua and Barbuda will stay close until 20 April 2020. The National School Meals Programme will make sure that the most economically vulnerable students receive meals. The meals are usually produced in a central kitchen where the quality and quantity of the food dispatched to school centres are monitored. However, based on observations made by the food handlers, most students do not consume the cooked vegetables. There is a preference for green salad and coleslaw. Local ground provisions such as yams are not consumed even when prepared in different ways.
Food consumption patterns in Antigua and Barbuda, as in many Commonwealth countries, are changing from traditional diets to eating patterns which are less healthy and strongly influenced by complex and challenging factors including the promotion of convenience or fast foods which are often high in fat, sugar, and salt. In some cases, these foods may be more affordable and more appealing to taste.
A nutrition and healthy consumption practices campaign should be included in the preparedness and response approaches to eradicate COVID-19 which might negatively impact food choices, especially among vulnerable groups. Children should be taught to make effective dietary choices as well as benefit from micronutrients fortification of meals delivered at their home.
According to The Global School Feeding Sourcebook: Lessons from 14 Countries (Imperial College, London, 2012), in normal circumstances, the strongest and most sustainable programs are those that respond to a community need, are locally owned and incorporate some form of parental or community involvement. In Namibia, communities are expected to provide fuel, cooking utensils and storerooms. In Ghana, the government uses a digital school meals planner to develop nutritionally balanced school meals using local ingredients. Whereas in India, the successful participation of the community in decentralised programs in India is attributed to the detailed guidelines that helped define the community roles. The Botswana National School Feeding Programme has universal coverage and reaches school children in all government-owned public primary schools, providing one meal a day to over 330,000 school children. Through the Remote Area Dweller Programme, a second meal is provided to some 14,000 school children in very remote areas or from marginalised communities. The children in these circumstances often go without a normal meal at home and depend on school feeding for their nutritional requirement.
Effective programs provide indirect benefits to the community, such as employment opportunities in school kitchens, increased income and skill acquisition opportunities for smallholder farmers, and complementary school feeding activities such as community nutrition volunteers.
Other Points to consider
- School feeding programmes provide an entry point to reach households in the wider community through campaigns for improving hygiene, health and nutrition practices at the household level.
- The programmes should bring in different degrees of community involvement, covering both cash and in-kind contributions.
- Ensure targeting benefits the poor and vulnerable children, including child orphans.
- The efficiency and effectiveness of feeding programmes will depend on how well the programme is designed and implemented based on country systems and resources.
- With many governments likely to suffer budgetary constraints, targeting needs clear criteria and technical guidelines.
- Engaging communities is important in securing transparency, accountability and effective implementation.
- School feeding is of a multisectoral nature and requires collective effort and partnership.