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Health crises like the current coronavirus pandemic pose an unprecedented public health emergency while also amplifying pre-existing inequalities and injustices, further hampering the survival and well-being of those living in poverty. A recently published paper by the Challenge Leaders of the UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund portfolios, ‘COVID-19 as a global challenge: towards an inclusive and sustainable future’ highlights the far-reaching ramifications of the current crisis, emphasising the multifaceted nature of its impact. In this article, the Challenge Leaders for Education and Food Systems seek to expand on that thinking to explore the impact of coronavirus-related school closures on children’s access to food.
One billion students are still out of school due to the COVID-19 enforced school closures. However, 78 per cent of countries have decided to reopen schools as the new academic year approaches. The impact of lost schooling on return-to-school rates is yet to be seen, but it is anticipated that the world’s most vulnerable children will be disproportionately impacted. It is therefore vital that efforts to support return recognize that school closures have not only impacted classroom time for children living in poverty. The lost societal value has been far greater than this; schools also provide children with safe environments and help to prevent exploitation and abuse, they relieve aspects of the burden of poverty, and they improve health outcomes. When encouraging the return to classrooms its essential that this multifaceted loss is considered.
Understanding the important role that free school meals play in the lives of children is central to such a multi-sectorial approach to combating COVID19 related drop-out rates. Globally, hundreds of millions of children who live in poverty are dependent on school meals to stave off hunger and provide the vital nutrition for their growth and development. The level of nutrition that an individual experiences in their childhood has a lifelong impact on their health, learning, and income opportunities as an adult. Nutrition-sensitive school meals are often the only guaranteed source of healthy meals, including important micronutrients such as zinc and iron.
The prolonged absence of school meals can detrimentally impact the likelihood of a child living in poverty returning to school in two significant ways: Firstly, the lack of regular meals can result in children falling disproportionately behind in their studies. Secondly, the absence of a state-provided meal can also create a significant financial burden on families that results in negative coping strategies like a dependence on child labour.
The Young Lives project, an international study of childhood poverty, found that in four countries, malnourished children scored 7 percent lower in mathematics tests, were 19 percent less likely to be able to read at 8 years old, and were 13 percent less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age than those who were well-nourished. It is understood that hunger can have both physical and psychological effects that make learning substantially difficult. The consequences of hunger on learning outcomes will therefore no doubt have been even more detrimental at a time when children were expected to study remotely, without the normal support of a classroom environment. The most vulnerable children will often already have significant obstacles to concentration, lacking suitable spaces in the home to study and the resources and technology harnessed by their more affluent peers. Under normal circumstances the further behind a child drops in their studies the less likely that they will return to school after a sustained absence.
School meals also provide opportunities for inclusion and equity, reducing the marginalisation of children based on socio-economic status. This is because school meals are not only important to the individual children who are able to access them; entire households and communities experience immediate benefits from the boost to incomes that the provision of a daily meal can offer. Their loss at this time will create a considerable financial burden for those living in poverty, especially at a time when necessary lockdowns will have resulted in the decrease of household earnings. The World Bank points out that, “for families, the value of meals in school is equivalent to about 10 percent of a household’s income.” World Bank findings from the Ebola crisis demonstrate that this increased economic burden for a household can lead to children dropping out of schooling to work, further limiting their ability to study remotely and decreasing the probability of their return when school reopen.
According to the World Food Programme’s latest calculations, 346 million children missed school meals due to the school closures that responded to the coronavirus pandemic. By ensuring that meals continue to be provided through a school-centred system, we can also encourage families to return to them when the crisis has abated. It is imperative, therefore, to continue expanding alternative options to do just that, as well as to continue studying these options to evaluate their fit to different contexts. Only with a combination of ongoing and expanding programming and research can we ensure that children continue to have access to both adequate nutrition and education and especially that the most vulnerable among them are not forsaken.
 There are exceptions to this, however, the 25-year old midday meal programme in India, the largest national school-feeding programme in the world and reaching over 100 million children, continues to challenged by caste-based discrimination in its implementation, where children of lower castes are seated separately from others during meal times and even given less food than upper caste children.