NEW YORK / ROM, January 28, 2021 – According to a new report released today by UNICEF Research Bureau – Innocenti and the World Food Program (WFP), more than 39 billion meals have been missed at school due to school closings worldwide since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
COVID-19: More than one classroom is missing notes that 370 million children worldwide – many of whom rely on school meals as their primary source of their daily nutrition – have missed an average of 40 percent of school meals since classrooms were closed by COVID-19 restrictions.
“Despite clear evidence that schools are not a major driver of COVID-19 infections, millions of children around the world are facing school closings,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “Children who depend on schools for their daily meals not only lose an education, they also lose a reliable source of food. As we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and wait for vaccines to be distributed, we need to prioritize reopening schools and take steps to make them as safe as possible, including by re-investing in proven infection prevention measures like clean Soap and water in every school the world. “
Recent estimates show that 24 million school children are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic – a reversal of advances in school enrollment over the past few decades. School feeding programs can provide incentives for the most vulnerable children to return to school.
“Missing nutritious school meals threatens the future of millions of the world’s poorest children. We risk losing a generation, ”said David Beasley, Executive Director of WFP. “We must help governments reopen schools safely and re-feed these children. For many, the nutritious food they get at school is the only food they get all day. “
During the pandemic, coverage of essential nutritional services, including school meals, micronutrient supplementation, and nutritional promotion programs in low- and middle-income countries and programs to treat severe malnutrition, was reduced by 30 percent overall in children. During nationwide lockdowns in some countries, all school lunch programs have been canceled.
Global data on the general impact of school closings on children’s nutrition is limited. However, country-level studies, prior knowledge of the effects of crises on food security and nutrition, and existing nutritional deficiencies in school-age children and adolescents are all cause for considerable concern, the report said.
Pre-pandemic survey data from 68 countries show that around 50 percent of children between the ages of 13 and 17 felt hungry before the COVID-19 hit. Additional data from 17 countries showed that up to two-thirds of adolescents aged 15-19 were underweight in some countries. And more than half of adolescent girls in South Asia were anemic.
In the hardest-hit areas during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, food insecurity had risen in countries with already high levels of malnutrition. The same trend was seen in many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, including sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.
In addition to being vital to the nutrition, growth and development of children, school meals provide a powerful incentive for children – especially girls and children from the poorest and most marginalized communities – to return to school after restrictions are lifted. The longer children are absent from school, the greater the risk that they will drop out of school altogether. Girls are at the added risk of forced transactional sex or early marriage.
WFP has helped governments adjust their school feeding programs during school closings. The report finds that more than 70 countries have provided take-away rations, cash transfers or grocery vouchers, providing a valuable interim solution for millions of children. In the first nine months of 2020, more than 13 million students received WFP support, compared to 17.3 million the previous year.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNICEF has supported national governments in maintaining the continuity of nutritional services for school-age children and adolescents. In 2020, nearly 25 million school-age children and adolescents benefited from anemia prevention programs. Most of these programs were contextually tailored and combined nutritional education and counseling, iron and other essential micronutrient supplements, and de-worming prophylaxis.
UNICEF and WFP urge governments to prioritize schools for reopening while ensuring that children’s health, food and nutritional needs are met through comprehensive, high quality school feeding programs.