While cases of COVID-19 appear to be fewer among children (and symptoms generally milder), national responses to the pandemic can have important consequences for child nutrition and educational outcomes.
Nearly 1.5 billion children – more than half of the world’s student population – are being kept away from school due to pandemic response measures. Nationwide school closures are in force in more than 180 countries while in many others there are localized closures which threaten to become countrywide.
The disruption and closure of schools around the world will have a negative impact not just on children’s right to education but on other human rights including their right to adequate food. More than 350 million schoolchildren in countries with nationwide and localized closures, might not have access to regular school feeding and nutrition services during the pandemic.
Adequate nutrition is essential for schoolchildren’s health and wellbeing. Many of the children who benefit from school feeding programmes could already be nutrient deficient, vulnerable or at risk. These children rely heavily on such programmes: either it’s the only meal/snack they consume in the day or contribute a significant part of their daily nutrient requirements.
It is difficult to predict how long school closures will last, so the health, food security and nutrition of the most vulnerable children must be prioritized. Expected negative economic impacts and the potential disruption of local food systems, together with household mitigation behaviours can further restrict children’s access to adequate food and diet quality. Furthermore, in countries with home grown school feeding programmes, the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and suppliers are at risk when such programmes are disrupted.
In countries where schools remain open, families may also be affected by economic slowdown and fluctuating food prices, and it will be more important to ensure that children have access to nutritious school meals and nutrition services.
Where school feeding services continue, there are concerns over gaps in water and sanitation infrastructure and the inability to comply with physical distancing and hygiene measures, as required by governments and by the World Health Organization (WHO). In some cases, fear of infection can also keep children away from school and from having access to school feeding.
This joint note from the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF) intends to provide government decision makers, school administrators/staff and partners with preliminary guidance on how to support, transform or adapt school feeding (in the short term) to help safeguard schoolchildren’s food security and nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specific recommendations are provided according to the various target groups involved in school feeding. An additional section is focused on the case of homegrown school feeding.
This guidance note will be regularly updated as the situation evolves, and new information becomes available. It complements other guidance from specialized UN agencies, such as UNESCO, WHO and partners.
The main recommendations are summarized below:
WHERE SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED
• Maintain flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions for supply and distribution of food and provision of nutrition services, while ensuring compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
• Use available resources to safeguard schoolchildren’s food security and nutrition.
• Build upon existing safety-net structures to cover vulnerable schoolchildren.
• Ensure food and nutrition needs of vulnerable schoolchildren are considered when designing any large-scale national response to COVID-19.
• Plan for the future reopening of schools, if possible with specific benchmarks.
WHERE SCHOOLS REMAIN OPEN
• Comply with COVID-19 prevention protocols.
• Promote optimal water, sanitation and hygiene services and ensure optimal hygiene and other key behaviours of children, teachers and foodservice staff/volunteers, school canteens and regulation of food vendors.
• Ensure and continue the provision of essential school health and nutrition package (school feeding, micronutrient supplementation, deworming, malaria prevention and oral hygiene)
• Avoid potential deterioration in food safety standards.
• Ensure adequate nutrition content of meals.
• Create contingency plans for the distribution of meals/food baskets in preparation for potential rapid closure of schools.