By: RANVIR S. NAYAR*
During the forced and prolonged school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest concerns of educationists and nutritionists around the world was the impact of the billions of school meals students were forced to miss.
As early as January 2021, barely a year after schools first shut their doors, a report by UNICEF and the World Food Programme said that as many as 39 billion school meals had been missed by schoolchildren around the world, notably in low and middle-income countries. The report also highlighted that 370 million children, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, had missed up to 40 percent of their school meals, a key source of nutrition for many, if not most, of them.
The first nationwide free school meal program was launched in Brazil as early as 1954. Initially, it was a targeted intervention, meant to address the issue of undernourishment and poor education among beneficiary families. Over the decades, the program was expanded when it was noticed that serving up balanced and nutritious hot meals in schools addressed not just issues of undernourishment and malnutrition, but also led to a significant rise in students’ academic performance.
Most other countries have since launched school meals programs. It is thought that more than 100 nations have such plans today. India, with more than 120 million students fed for free every day in 1.3 million schools, boasts the world’s largest free school meals program. It is acknowledged as having worked wonders in cutting dropout rates, as well as increasing attendance rates for primary schools, notably for girls.
A study found that average reading capability was 18 percent higher for children who ate school lunches for three to four years compared to those who had them for less than a year. In math, children with access to the program scored 9 percent higher.
It should come as no surprise that what was true for Brazil has proven to be true in rich and poor countries alike. It also has several other spinoff benefits. In many countries, the meals are cooked using food supplies that come from the vicinity, thus benefiting local farmers.
Over the past few years, even rich countries have introduced free school meals and extended the coverage to all students, instead of merely targeting poorer families. Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden were among the first European nations to offer free meals for all students.
One of the biggest impacts of the free meals program can be seen in the Middle East, where the World Food Programme, in association with other UN bodies and local nongovernmental organizations, has been ensuring access to free school meals for tens of thousands of children who live in conflict-ridden nations like Syria and Yemen. For instance, in Syria, one such intervention by the World Food Programme even covers more than 32,000 children who were forced to drop out of school because their families had to abandon their homes.
In Yemen, the problem is even bigger, as more than 2.2 million children under the age of five face malnutrition and more than 22 million people overall, including millions of school-age children, are faced with severe food insecurity. As a result, the World Food Program has mounted a $1.97 billion program to stave off mass starvation.
Unfortunately, the pandemic-induced two-year-long closure of schools had a severe impact on children’s health and education. A World Bank study found that the share of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries who are unable to read a simple story has risen from a pre-COVID-19 level of 57 percent to more than 70 percent. Another recent study, conducted in Malawi, found that seven months of school closures led to a loss of more than two years of foundational learning, with children forgetting concepts mastered before lockdown.
Underlining the importance of school meals, another study found that more than 179 million school-age children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia were living with hunger in 2021, an increase of 35 million from 2020. In Africa, almost 25 percent of school-age children were suffering from undernutrition.
Governments’ efforts to restore school meals programs have also had to face the challenge of extremely high food inflation, thanks mainly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also due to high inflation across the entire economy. This has left many governments and schools struggling to keep the programs alive in their original form.
But it is crucial for governments and educationists all over the world to realize that now is not the time to tighten the belts on school meals; instead, the moment is right to enhance the budgets allocated to these programs. The World Food Programme says that most countries seriously underinvest in this area, despite the positive outcomes of investment and the extremely negative impact of not funding such programs adequately.
It adds that failing to invest in a well-nourished, healthy and educated population undermines growth and economic development. Take, for example, low-income countries in Africa. They account for 25 out of the 30 countries with the lowest ranking in the World Bank Human Capital Index. These nations face losses of economic potential ranging from 50 percent to 70 percent in the long term. The World Food Program says that Africa’s gross domestic product would be 2.5 times higher than today if it attained the benchmarks for health and education — the two basic objectives of providing free school meals.
According to some studies, while governments in low and lower-middle income countries invest about $210 billion annually in providing basic education, such as schools and teachers, they invest only about $1.4 billion to $5.5 billion in ensuring the children have the health and nutrition to allow them to learn.
With a number of proven immediate, short-term, medium-term and long-term benefits of giving nutritious meals to schoolchildren, it is time that governments the world over expanded their schemes to cover rich and poor alike. Not only would they stand to gain in terms of the school system producing better-skilled, more productive and healthier workers, but they would also cut their healthcare costs by reducing malnutrition and obesity.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect Al-Mujtama’s point of view