WASHINGTON — As schools remain in varying degrees of operation more than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, school feeding programs must continue to adapt to ensure they can reach as many students as possible with meals, even if they are not in the classroom.
For many children in lower-income countries, a school meal may often be the only one they receive each day. When countless communities shut down around the world in March with little to no notice, 1.6 billion children were suddenly out of school. This left governments and NGOs to figure out whether and how to adapt school feeding programs to make sure vulnerable children were still getting meals.
Carmen Burbano, director of the school meals division at the World Food Programme, called the mass school closures “probably the largest catastrophe in the education systems of our lifetime,” putting many children at risk of never returning to school.
“All of a sudden as the weeks started going by and we started monitoring the numbers, this number mushroomed into 370 million children that were missing out on school meals because their schools were shut,” Burbano said. “A lot of it at the time was talking about switching to online learning. … But we can’t switch to online eating. We need to do something to find an alternative to get these kids the food.”
Having schoolchildren at home can add an extra 10%-12% cost for a family each month, Burbano said, which can be a huge strain in normal times. During the pandemic, lockdowns and quarantine measures further restricted family income due to job loss and decreased economic opportunity. To help mitigate some of this pressure, WFP put out a call to action to its country offices to determine how it could adapt school feeding programs to provide meals to children while they were at home.
In 70% of the schools it serves, WFP was able to adapt school feeding programs into take-home rations, individually packaging food that could be picked up at schools or, in some cases, distributed directly to homes by school personnel. If deemed safe, these home visits gave teachers an opportunity to check in on students and distribute other supplies in addition to the food, such as school materials or hygiene supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer.
While the COVID-19 pandemic pushes a growing number of schools to close, the World Food Programme is developing new strategies to reach the 11.6 million out-of-school students who rely on the agency's daily lunches.
In Cote d’Ivoire, WFP usually provides cooked meals to 125,000 children in primary school. Because COVID-19 lockdowns in that country were not uniform, some areas had stricter quarantine measures than others. Adeyinka Badejo, Cote d’Ivoire country director at WFP, said the agency conducted a remote food security assessment to determine the impact such measures were having, from which it learned that people were eating fewer meals and less nutritious food.
Badejo said WFP had no choice but to suspend school feeding programs when lockdowns began in Cote d’Ivoire but moved to get appropriate permissions from the government to be able to move around and distribute the food it had available as take-home rations.
“Imagine the logistical challenge in trying to contact all the kids,” Badejo said. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from back in March, April, where we really wanted to assist kids. We were unable to move rapidly. … What we’ve learned is that we need to make sure that the food is available physically in the target locations.”
It is important that WFP is flexible enough to pivot back to packaging take-home rations for students in case lockdowns are implemented again, Badejo said. In areas where such programming was not possible, WFP has been using cash transfers to help supplement the food that families are able to purchase themselves.
In Haiti, Summits Education works with partners to provide meals in its 40 schools across the country. Cassandre Regnier, the network’s director of programs, said it was able to work with partner businesses and organizations that support its school feeding programs to package take-home rations for all of its 9,600 students.
One of the challenges with this approach was not knowing how long children would be out of the classroom, Regnier said. The schools did not want to distribute their entire stockpile of staple foods only to have children sent back to school earlier than planned to empty kitchens.
“We can’t pretend that we’re reaching all the children. We’re doing our best, but a lot of them are falling through the cracks.”— Carmen Burbano, director, WFP school meals division
Summits decided to do one take-home distribution followed by a second after a month-and-a-half, with kits containing foods like rice, beans, and maize. Although students in Haiti have experienced prolonged school closures before due to political instability, this is the first time Summits has distributed take-home rations while students are away.
“The parents, the community members, they were extremely grateful for this because we went beyond what we would normally do and thought of the fact that they would have to feed kids,” Regnier said. “We knew that it would be difficult and even increase the rate of malnutrition cases, so they were extremely appreciative.”
Haitian children are now back in schools, which have also received hygiene supplies and personal protective equipment to ensure cooking staffs and kitchens are kept as safe as possible. Students are accustomed to eating in their classrooms rather than a common area, which helps prevent large groups from gathering. So far, Regnier said, no Summits student is known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and just one staff member has been reported sick with the coronavirus.
Burbano said WFP plans to keep its flexible approach of serving children both in and out of school through at least the middle of next year, if not longer, as education continues to be disrupted. She said school feeding programs will remain a crucial incentive to return children to school as lockdowns end.
“Although we have tried and it’s been a massive effort to pivot and to adapt our programming and repurpose a lot of the supply chains and logistics and make sure that the programs were safe and everything — and we’ve achieved quite an impressive scale — that still doesn’t compensate for the actual school functioning and the actual school feeding programs running,” Burbano said. “We can’t pretend that we’re reaching all the children. We’re doing our best, but a lot of them are falling through the cracks, especially girls.”