WFP repackages efforts to reach hungry children as COVID-19 closes schools

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Children receive their meals, as part of the "Healthful School" program by the World Food Programme and El Salvador's government, at a school in Suchitoto. Photo by: REUTERS / Luis Galdamez

NEW YORK/MANILA — The World Food Programme is reconfiguring its work to reach 11.6 million children who are no longer receiving the agency’s daily school lunches due to restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“The possibility of pretty much the whole world just kind of shutting down their schools is something that we never planned for.”

— Carmen Burbano, director, World Food Programme School Feeding Division

WFP is currently considering different scenarios to continue to provide meals for out-of-school students who rely on the agency’s lunches as a crucial source of nutrition, according to Carmen Burbano, director of WFP’s school meals program. The agency plans to have a revised strategy for the delivery of school meals this week.

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“The possibility of pretty much the whole world just kind of shutting down their schools is something that we never planned for. It never really crossed our mind that something of this magnitude would happen. But we have had instances where localized school closures have happened, for example, in the Ebola crisis,” Burbano said.

WFP’s normal backup strategy for reaching students with their meals at in-person distribution centers might not be possible in the current situation.

“So using cashless mechanisms, transfers to phones and to a bank account and all of those things, are now really coming very much into the forefront in terms of possible solutions,” Burbano said.

More than 11 million students are dependent on WFP school lunches in 49 countries, according to the agency’s global monitoring figures. The coronavirus has led to more than 367 million children missing out on school lunches worldwide, and that number is expected to continue rising as more schools shut their doors, according to Burbano.

“This is about three-quarters of WFP school-feeding operations right now affected in terms of school feeding. Obviously, that worries us a lot because WFP operates already in the most vulnerable countries, and within those most vulnerable countries, we serve the most vulnerable families and their children,” Burbano said.

The loss of “vital nutrition support” to children is one major concern. But many families are also dependent on WFP school meals to help lift financial burdens. The value of school meals represents about 10% of a lower-income family’s monthly income, according to Burbano, who described the meal program as the “largest safety net in the world.”

“We have millions of families that are not receiving that indirect income. And so it's a really, really big deal. On top of all of the other vulnerabilities that they're having, they also lose the ability to feed their children that were normally receiving that food at school,” Burbano said.

In the few countries that still have schools open, WFP is working with UNICEF and national and international NGOs to see how they can ramp up hand-washing, food sanitation, and hygiene standards for cooks in schools. WFP is also considering options for repackaging food to provide large orders of take-home rations, which could be picked up at community distribution centers.

“If we can give enough food to the family for what would have been an equivalent, maybe, of a two-week provision of food, then we don't have to go back for another couple of weeks to those families again,” Burbano said.

National quarantine and stay-at-home orders, though, could place this possibility out of reach for many families.

“This is an unprecedented situation where, you know, we not only have children out of school, but we have people that can't leave their homes. So this is something that we have never really experienced before,” Burbano said.

Digital food vouchers are another plausible option. Families could use the vouchers to buy food directly from stores. Ultimately, though, solutions will look different from country to country. In Colombia, the WFP country office has already repackaged school meals into take-home rations for students.

In some countries, governments and aid organizations are finding alternative ways to navigate the situation on their own, according to a survey conducted by the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, which continues to gather data on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on school meals globally.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services will be distributing food cards to families with children registered to receive school meals under the government’s school-feeding program. The cards can be used to purchase food in supermarkets.

In Guatemala and Sierra Leone, plans are in place to switch to take-home food rations, an approach that the Liberian government has already implemented.

Because of the lockdown in India, the national government has asked state authorities to distribute grains or cooked meals to children’s homes or to provide parents with cash to ensure that students are still getting the basic nutrition they would be receiving from school lunches.

The Ministry of Public Education in Costa Rica is delivering food packages, meant to last three weeks, to families with students who regularly receive school meals. China and South Africa are working with the private sector to continue food distribution to students.

“Our goal at this time is to identify and share approaches that keep people safe while ensuring children don’t go hungry and can continue their studies; to replace in-school meals with home-school food,” Arlene Mitchell, executive director at GCNF, told Devex.

WFP, meanwhile, is continuing to engage with UNICEF and other partners to devise a new path forward.

“It's not an easy switch, because just kind of shifting the focus of all of these operations is a massive endeavor. And so we are just pulling from everywhere we can in terms of partners that can help us to do this,” Burbano said.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.