As emergencies mount, school meals cushion the fallout – Somalia

At key education summit, School Meals Coalition calls for billions to support vital safety net

Hundreds of schools have closed in Somalia this year amid a blistering drought that has pushed the East African nation to the brink of famine and threatens to wipe out learning opportunities for thousands of children. children.

In Cape Verde and Sri Lanka, soaring food prices have deepened hunger and are part of a set of factors that make state-run school meals programs too costly for struggling governments.

And in rich and poor countries, experts say learning lost during COVID-19 could cost the current generation of schoolchildren a staggering $17 trillion in lifetime earnings.

The alarming intersection of an unprecedented global health pandemic and a food crisis is the backdrop for the Transforming Education Summit in New York, which aims to put education at the top of the political agenda and mobilize the action and resources to give children the tools to succeed in a rapidly changing environment. world.

“These are not two separate crises,” said Carmen Burbano, director of the School Programs Division of the World Food Program (WFP). “They are connected, because we are failing our children. We don’t feed them and we don’t educate them – and everyone will end up losing. »

This message is echoed by our partners in the School Meals Coalition, a rainbow alliance of 70 countries and organizations, including the WFP. We call on governments and other key actors to prioritize school meals as essential safety nets against hunger and building blocks for development.

The price to pay – estimated at $5.8 billion to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not fall through the cracks and receive much-needed school meals and health interventions – is much cheaper than the cost of inaction. It’s a message that resonates in countries like Rwanda, Benin and Honduras.

“African countries have long recognized the benefits of school feeding in protecting children’s health, nutrition and education, while strengthening local food systems,” said Fati N’zi-Hassane, Head of Human Capital and Institutional Development at the African Union Development Agency, a School Meals Coalition Working Group Member.

“Country ownership and commitment is key,” N’zi-Hassane added. “Efforts to protect and scale up these programs are now more important than ever, to protect Africa’s youth from colliding food and education crises.”

Increase emergencies

The call to action comes as hunger reaches historic levels – 345 million people face acute food insecurity today, up from 282 million earlier this year – as conflict, climate change and high prices intensify food insecurity. Of these, some 153 million children suffer from acute hunger, or 40% of the total.

At the same time, rising food, fertilizer and fuel prices are driving up the cost of school meals, which have risen by an average of 20% in countries like Ethiopia, South Sudan and Malawi. Running costs for WFP school meals have jumped 15 percent this year, with vegetable oil – once sourced from Ukraine – contributing a large part.

Rising costs are leading some governments to drastically reduce the quantity and quality of school meals – in some cases to nothing more than a bun and tea – or the number of children who receive them.

Meanwhile, a long-simmering education crisis has intensified, with months of learning lost due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Low-income countries pay the highest price, Burbano said. 70% of 10-year-olds cannot read or write a simple sentence.

“Even before the pandemic, we were in a kind of learning crisis,” Burbano added. “Now, after two years of no schooling for many of these children, especially in the poorest countries, we face the greatest educational emergency we have ever seen.”

Banking on school meals is all the more important given their vital role in linking hunger, education, development, women’s empowerment and economic growth.

Indeed, research shows that every dollar invested in school meals yields US$9 in economic return.

“If we are trying to support communities and families during the food crisis, school feeding is one of the most powerful tools we and governments have,” Burbano said.

Filling the gaps, scaling up

In countries hit hard by the confluence of crises, WFP and its partners are helping to bridge the cracks. This includes Sri Lanka and Cape Verde, where WFP plans to reach a total of 1.1 million children with school meals in the coming months.

“We know from WFP monitoring that as soon as households fall into food insecurity, they take action like pulling children out of school – and we know that girls are pulled out first,” Burbano said. . “On the other hand, the mere presence of meals in schools may be enough to keep their children in school.”

A case in point is Colombia, where many children abandoned remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and never returned when schools reopened. But World Bank findings showed that take-home rations under the country’s school feeding program helped keep more than 70,000 other people in school.

Almost all of those receiving the rations came from extremely vulnerable families. Most of their parents believed they could better withstand economic shocks thanks to the program – which also employed 73,000 women to prepare food.

Elsewhere, too, WFP take-home rations for young students, especially girls, provide parents with an additional incentive to send and keep their children in school.

Meanwhile, rising international prices offer another compelling reason to source locally, something the WFP has been doing for years in dozens of countries through programs that link farmers to schools. This is the case in the South Asian nation of Bhutanwhere WFP helps farmers like Tshering, 32, whose all-female cooperative provides ingredients for her daughter’s school meals.

WFP is also expanding its school feeding budget by trading in nutrient-dense products like fortified maize flour, at little or no additional cost.

For their part, some governments are stepping up their response to the crisis. Rwandan authorities, for example, more than quintupled the number of children enrolled in the national school meals program, reaching 3.8 million students.

In Benin, President Patrice Talon has pledged to increase the national budget for the school meals program from $79 million to $240 million over the next five years. Senegal and Honduras are also devoting more resources to school feeding.

“These are the kinds of examples we would like to see,” Burbano said, “of governments really putting their children first and protecting them from the worst effects of the crisis.”

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