The closure of schools around the world to contain the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic will put the lives of 370 million children at risk of hunger and starvation among others as they now miss out on meals routinely served them at schools.
Two agencies of the United Nations–the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) gave the warning in a joint press statement issued yesterday in Rome, Italy and New York, United States.
Consequently, the WFP and UNICEF urged national governments to prevent devastating nutrition and health consequences for the 370 million children, as the COVID-19 crisis pushes up levels of hunger among the global poor.
“For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only meal they get in a day. Without it, they go hungry, they risk falling sick, dropping out of school and losing their best chance of escaping poverty. We must act now to prevent the health pandemic from becoming a hunger catastrophe,” Executive Director of WFP, David Beasley, said.
The agencies stressed that school meals were especially critical for girls, stating that in many poor countries, the promise of a meal could be enough to make struggling parents send their daughter to school, allowing her to escape heavy domestic duties or early marriage.
“School is so much more than a place of learning. For many children it is a lifeline to safety, health services and nutrition. Unless we act now – by scaling up lifesaving services for the most vulnerable children – the devastating fallout caused by COVID-19 will be felt for decades to come,” UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, explained.
According to them, alongside school meal programmes, children in poor countries often benefit from health and nutrition services – such as vaccinations, deworming and iron supplementation – delivered through their schools.
However, in response to a recent report from the United Nations Secretary-General, which highlighted the number of children missing out on school meals, WFP and UNICEF said they were working with governments to support children who are out of school during the crisis.
The statement said in 68 countries, governments and WFP are providing children with take-home rations, vouchers or cash transfers as an alternative to school meals.
It added that under the partnership, WFP and UNICEF will assist governments in the coming months to ensure that when schools reopen returning children benefit from school meals and health and nutrition programmes.
This, it explained, would also provide an incentive for parents to send their children back to school, as the agencies are also working together to track children in need of school meals through an online School Meals map.