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The importance of school feeding programs before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

Foto: Andre Borges | Agência Brasília

The importance of school feeding programs before, during and post-pandemic of COVID-19 Over the past few decades, school feeding has strengthened itself as an important policy of social protection, promotion of education, health, gender equity, food and nutrition security and local development in several countries around the world.

The relevance of school feeding programs (PAEs) was even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic period, as access to schools was compromised and millions of children and young people were left without the food they were entitled to. At the peak of the 1st wave of the disease, in 2020, several schools were closed in 199 countries and 370 million students stopped receiving school meals (WFP, 2020). This situation posed yet another major challenge for the most vulnerable families during this period, since before the pandemic, they did not have to worry about part of the family's food, which was provided by the school.

In addition, contracts for the purchase of food from family farmers for school meals were suspended in several municipalities in the country, leaving thousands of families in the hands of those who already had a guaranteed market for their production and compromising the food and nutritional security of these families.

Given the importance of the theme, the idea of ​​this text is to present a brief summary of a recently released document, the State of School Feeding Worldwide 2020 report, published by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP, for its acronyms in English), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. The document seeks to analyze various aspects of school feeding, globally, in addition to examining what has changed since 2013, when the report was published by the first time, highlighting the advances and challenges, and also presenting the ways forward, taking into account, mainly, the relevance of these programs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following are the main findings, taking into account the advances and challenges between 2013 and 2020:

  • Expansion of PAEs. In 2013, 355 million students worldwide received school meals. In early 2020, before the pandemic, PAEs were delivering more school food than at any other time, becoming the largest social safety net in the world. From data from 163 countries, it was identified that in 161 of them (99%), approximately 388 million students - one out of every two students around the world - benefit from some type of school meals. The expansion was more pronounced in low- and lower-middle-income countries, as a result of the increase in financial and political efforts, where the number of children receiving school meals increased by 36% and 86%, respectively. The most comprehensive PAEs are in India (90 million children), Brazil and China (both 40 million), the United States (30 million) and Egypt (11 million). Almost half of the children who receive school meals worldwide live in one of the five BRICS countries (188 million).

  • Strengthening the institutional structure of PAEs. Since 2013, there has been a strengthening in the institutionalization of programs. Worldwide, 80% of countries have a school feeding policy, representing 4 out of 5 countries, compared to 42% in 2013. The increase in institutionality was more pronounced in low- and lower-middle-income countries, as part of policies for national development, where the proportion of those with a school feeding policy has increased from 20% to 75%.

  • Greater national investment. Governments have increased investment in PAEs and currently between $ 41 billion and $ 43 billion are spent annually on these programs, more than 90% of which come from national funds. In low-income countries, the share of national funding in general spending on school meals increased from 17% to 28%, generating less dependence on international donors. For comparison, in high- and middle-income countries, PAEs are almost universally supported by national funds, and total national investment exceeds 95% of total costs.

  • Stability of the cost of school meals. The annual cost of an EAP has changed little since 2013 and the cost of feeding a child remains broadly similar across countries and income groups. Data from 2020 indicates a cost of $ 55 (in 2013, it was $ 50) in low-income countries, $ 41 ($ 46 in 2013) in low-income countries and an unchanged cost of $ 57 for 2020 and 2013.

  • School meals recognized as part of an investment package. Of the 161 countries, 93% of governments implement school feeding as part of an integrated package of complementary school health and nutrition interventions, such as vaccination, oral health, deworming, food and nutrition education, hand washing with soap, food and nutrition surveillance, ophthalmic examination, menstrual hygiene, drinking water and water purification.

  • Gap in coverage among the most vulnerable. In 2013, the coverage of school meals was lower where it was most needed. In 2020, although the gap has narrowed, 73 million of the most vulnerable children still did not receive food in schools. On average, 20% of school-age children in low-income countries receive school lunches, compared to 45% in low-middle income countries and 58% in high-middle income countries. In the five BRICS countries, there is an average coverage of 61%.

Other important points highlighted in the document are:

  • Benefits of PAEs. Studies demonstrate the benefits of these programs, such as improvements in children's education, and in their physical and psychosocial health, with most of the benefits falling on the most disadvantaged children. Recent studies have revealed effects on learning, mathematics and literacy outcomes, with greater effects on girls and boys below the national poverty line.

  • Contribution to gender equity. The supply of food attracts girls to school, and their stay in this space contributes to reducing child marriage and teenage pregnancy in several countries, in addition to improving their diet.

  • Contribution to resilience in the face of conflicts and emergencies. School meals are also essential for students living in conflict situations, as they end up contributing to peace and social cohesion in these regions by guaranteeing food for part of the family.

  • Job creation. PAEs led to the creation of 3.1 million direct jobs in 48 countries, equivalent to 1,668 new jobs for every 100,000 children and young people who receive school meals.

  • Return on investment. For every dollar that is invested by an efficient PAE, there is a return of up to 9 dollars, in addition to the effects on other sectors, such as education, health, nutrition, social protection and local agriculture.

  • Contribution to reducing the impacts of climate change. When PAEs buy food from local and, preferably, organic producers, they contribute to the reduction of food chains, minimize food waste, and contribute to the construction of ecologically friendly food systems.

Important reflections for 2021 and 2022:

The report draws attention to some fundamental reflections that must be made, based on the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, it emphasizes the importance of investing in human capital, so that people reach their full potential and contribute to national growth and economic development; and attentive to a paradigm shift in relation to the need to invest, not only in the first 1000 days of life of the individuals, but, up to the first 8000 days (approximately until the age of 21). And that, in this sense, school health and nutrition programs, including PAEs, are a very efficient and intelligent way for governments to invest in social protection and in the growth, development and education of children and young people.

In addition, it points out that it is necessary to redefine what education is and to recognize that investing in students is investing in the future, at the individual and societal level. The closure of schools made it clear that education goes far beyond books and classrooms and that it is probably one of the most important pillars of communities and societies. Thus, it suggests that the concept of education should be expanded to cover the health and well-being of children, as well as to rebuild quality and equity health and nutrition services in all schools for all students.

School health and nutrition programs, and especially school meals, play a key role, acting as a strong incentive for parents to send their children to school and for children to stay in school.

The document raises some questions and suggests proposals for the countries, as a starting point for the search for concrete actions to strengthen the PAEs and face the identified challenges.

  1. How is it possible to accelerate global efforts to safely reopen schools closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and at least get back to where it was in early 2020?

  2. How can innovative financing approaches bring hope to the 73 million children most in need? Technical assistance is recommended to support governments to further improve cost efficiency and maximize the impact of their PAEs.

  3. Due to the fact that the available data on school meals are concentrated in public sector programs in low and medium low income countries, what can be learned from the programs run by the BRICS countries, high income countries and the private sector? The creation of a robust global database of PAEs would help to better understand the variety of programs and expand the scope of learning opportunities.

  4. Taking into account that PAEs that buy local products have shown their effectiveness in middle-income countries, how can low-income countries expand efforts for this same approach, as part of their national programs? Low-income countries must be supported to be able to expand school feeding activities with local products as key elements of their national programs.

  5. Given that PAEs are the largest safety net in the world and play a critical role in responding to conflicts and emergencies, how is it possible to maintain and further increase the resilience of food systems through a new generation of more economical and environmentally friendly PAEs ?

In presenting all these data, the report highlights the enormous reach and potential of PAEs as strategies for food and nutrition security, food and nutrition education and local development, which should be strengthened by countries, even more, considering the approximately 690 million people who were starving in 2019 in the world, before the pandemic (equivalent to 8.9% of the world population), added to the 144 million children under 5 years with stunted growth, the 47 million with low weight, the 38.3 million overweight, and 340 million with micronutrient deficiencies (FAO et al., 2020a).

Combating food and nutritional insecurity and the various forms of malnutrition requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach among the different sectors for the formulation, execution and monitoring of the various public policies involved in the different stages of the food system, with a view to promoting changes needed for more inclusive, fair, healthy and sustainable systems.

And the PAEs, due to their great reach and their huge demand for products, are definitely part of the wide range of these policies, contributing to the access to healthy diets by a large part of the population, at the same time that they have the potential to contribute to the balance of local food systems, through their mechanisms of direct public purchases from family farmers.

During the year 2020, it was found that many countries made extensive efforts to create alternatives to continue with the delivery of food to students, even during the closing period of schools for educational activities. The modalities of supply, in countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, were diverse and included the delivery of baskets of non-perishable and, where possible, perishable food, at school or in the homes of families or food cards (RAES , 2020).

At this time, the return or maintenance of classes in a safe environment, whether in hybrid mode or 100% face-to-face, should remain a priority in order to reverse the damage caused by the closing of schools. And, more than ever, managers must prioritize the provision of adequate, healthy school meals, with products from family farming, respecting sanitary norms, nutritional and quality recommendations.

To access the executive summary and the full WFP report, in English, Spanish and other languages, with the exception of Portuguese:


FAO, FIDA, OMS, PMA y UNICEF. 2020. El estado de la seguridad alimentaria y la nutrición en el mundo 2020. Transformación de los sistemas alimentarios para que promuevan dietas asequibles y saludables. Roma, FAO.

RAES (Red de Alimentación Escolar Sostenible).2020. A RAES é promovida pelo Governo do Brasil com o apoio da FAO, por meio do Projeto Consolidação de Programas de Alimentação Escolar na América Latina e Caribe.

---- About the author:

Nutritionist, with a degree in Nutrition from the Faculty of Public Health (FSP) of the University of São Paulo (USP), Master of Science from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and Doctor of Science from the FSP / USP. She has been a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations since 2011. She has experience in the fields of food and nutrition in public health, working mainly on the following themes: school food and nutrition, food and nutrition security, food and nutrition education and promotion healthy eating.



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