• Thursday, Feb 25, 2021
  • Last Update : 04:27 pm

UN agencies: Global nutrition crisis looms for hungry children locked out of school

  • Published at 04:01 pm January 28th, 2021
School feeding
Bangladeshi students receiving a hot meal as part of a pilot program WFP

Latest estimates show that 24 million schoolchildren are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic

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 a new report released on Thursday by the Unicef Office of Research – Innocenti and the World Food Program (WFP).

“Covid-19: Missing More Than a Classroom” notes that 370 million children worldwide – many of whom are reliant on school meals as a key source of their daily nutrition – have missed 40% of in-school meals, on average, since Covid-19 restrictions shuttered classrooms. 

“Despite clear evidence that schools are not primary drivers of Covid-19 infections, millions of children are facing school closures around the world,” said Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

“Children who depend on schools for their daily meals are not only losing out on an education but also on a reliable source of nutrition. As we respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and await vaccine distribution, we must prioritize the reopening of schools and take action to make them as safe as possible, including through renewed investments in proven infection prevention measures like clean water and soap in every school around the world,” she added.

Also read - OP-ED: Feeding the children

Latest estimates show that 24 million schoolchildren are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic – reversing progress made in school enrolment in recent decades. School feeding programs can provide incentives for the most vulnerable children to return to school.

“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 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,” he added.

School feeding programs cancelled

During the pandemic, there has been a 30% overall reduction in the coverage of essential nutrition services including school feeding, micronutrient supplementation, and nutrition promotion programs in low- and middle-income countries, as well as programs for the treatment of severe malnutrition in children.

During nationwide lockdowns in some countries, all school feeding programs were cancelled.

Global data on the overall impact of school closures on children’s nutrition is limited. However, country-level studies, previous knowledge of the impact of crises on food security and nutrition, and existing nutrition deficits among school-age children and adolescents are cause for significant concern, the report says.

Pre-pandemic survey data from 68 countries show that, before Covid-19 hit, around 50% of children aged 13 to 17 years old reported feelings of hunger. Further data from 17 countries showed that, in some countries, up to two thirds of adolescents aged 15–19 were underweight. And more than half of adolescent girls in South Asia were anaemic.

The worst-hit areas during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa saw rising food insecurity in countries already facing high levels of malnutrition. This same trend has already been seen in many countries during the Covid-19 pandemic including in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Unicef and WFP are urging governments to prioritize schools for reopening while making sure that the health, food and nutritional needs of children are met through comprehensive, high-quality school feeding programs.

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