Almost Half of Schoolchildren Get Free Meals but the Most Vulnerable Still Miss out Amidst Global Food Crisis

Photo: ADS/Victor Useni/2023
Published March 23, 2023

ROME – Amidst a global food crisis, a new report says governments worldwide are increasingly convinced that school meals are a powerful and cost-effective way of ensuring vulnerable children get the food they need.

Almost 420 million children worldwide receive school meals, according to the State of School Feeding Worldwide report, issued by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). At a time when 345 million people face crisis levels of hunger, including 153 million children and young people, school meals are a critical safety net for vulnerable children and households, the report said.

“The near $50 billion industry in school meal programs worldwide offers a promising opportunity to help secure the future of the world’s children,” the report said, noting that 75 governments have now joined a coalition that aims to ensure every child can receive a daily, nutritious meal in school by 2030.

Thanks to a determined effort by the governments to restore free lunch programs after the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children receiving meals globally is now 30 million higher than in 2020.

“This is good news. Governments are making the well-being of children a priority and investing in the future,” said Carmen Burbano, the U.N. World Food Programme’s head of school-based programs. “As the world grapples with a global food crisis, which risks robbing millions of children of their future, school meals have a vital role to play. In many of the countries where we work, the meal a child gets in school might be the only meal they get that day.”

The global recovery received crucial support from the government-led School Meals Coalition, an important network for information exchange and advocacy that was formed in 2020 in response to the pandemic’s impacts.

The report also highlighted differences between the high-income world, where 60% of school children get meals, and low-income countries where only 18% do. While the recovery was rapid in most countries, the number of children fed in school in low-income countries is still 4% below pre-COVID levels, with the biggest declines observed in Africa. This was despite low-income countries increasing their domestic financing for school meals by around 15% since 2020.

Some low-income countries have been unable to rebuild their national programs and need more help. In eight African countries, less than 10% of schoolchildren receive a free or subsidized meal in school, the report showed.

“Investments are lowest where children need school meals the most,” said Burbano. “We need to support low-income countries in finding more sustainable ways of funding these programs. This will require time-bound support from donor countries as well as increases in domestic investment.”

School meal programs worldwide offer a range of benefits. A free lunch attracts more children – especially girls – to school, enables them to learn better when they are there and helps them maintain good health. The report also noted that a combination of health and education offers children in low-income countries the best route out of poverty and malnutrition.

Research has shown that school meals programs can increase enrollment rates by 9% and attendance by 8%. The report also cited research showing that school meals programs can have beneficial effects on agriculture, education, health and nutrition, and social protection, with $9 in returns for every $1 invested.

When school meals programs are linked to local small-scale farmers, they also benefit local economies and support the establishment of more sustainable food systems. For every 100,000 children fed through a school meal program, almost 1,400 jobs are created – leading to around 4 million jobs in 85 countries.

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About the United Nations World Food Programme
The United Nations World Food Programme is the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the world’s leading humanitarian organization, saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change

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