Last week, millions of children and young people should have been returning to classrooms after the Easter break.
But with more than half of the world’s population forced into lockdown to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, many are unable to even leave the confines of their homes.
The impact on education is a major concern for governments and institutions across the Commonwealth, many of whom have responded with measures such as online lessons, video-conference classes and the distribution of laptops to ensure everyone, including disadvantaged children, can keep learning.
The effect on access to education is not the only worrying consequence of the Covid-19 crisis.
For many children, attending school is not just an opportunity to learn, but their only chance to eat a hot meal. The School Feeding Programme is used across the world to protect some of the most vulnerable children, alleviating short-term hunger, improving nutrition and cognition of children and transferring income to families. In some poor households, it represents about 10 per cent of their monthly income.
Across the Commonwealth, we have great examples of school feeding programmes offering a lifeline for poor and marginalised children and those in remote areas. They provide free food grains, nutritionally balanced meals and innovations such as digital school meal planners.
The grave concern is that, despite these strategies, many children are missing out, particularly at a time when an increasing number of families are dealing with unemployment and income loss.
The World Food Programme estimates 368 million children across the world are currently not receiving school meals, up from 300 million in mid-March.
And, in the Commonwealth, more than 133 million children are thought to be missing out.
As governments battle with the unprecedented scale and impact of the crisis, we are seeing alternative solutions emerging that can be shared and replicated across the 54 member countries.
As we continue to create strategies to protect and improve school feeding programmes during the Covid-19 pandemic, here are some points to consider:
Without school meals, millions of children will become susceptible to malnutrition and other health risks as their immunity diminishes. Effective school feeding programmes also provide indirect benefits to communities, such as employment opportunities in school kitchens, increased income and skill acquisition opportunities for smallholder farmers, and complementary school feeding activities such as community nutrition volunteers.
These factors should be considered given that the pandemic has had negative impacts on food security, especially for vulnerable populations including children, women, the elderly and the poor. Experience from previous health crises, such as the Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014 when rice and cassava prices skyrocketed by 30 and 150 per cent respectively, indicates that many countries are exposed to the risk of rising domestic food prices.
Sustainable healthy diets that contain sufficient fruits and vegetables are crucial in protecting people’s immunity. This is a particular concern for those already at risk of, or suffering from food insecurity, such as the 23 African countries severely impacted by the current locust plague.
Food insecurity may lead vulnerable households to resort to negative coping mechanisms that include reduced number of meals, increased school drop-out rates, inability to cover health expenditures, gender-based violence, selling of productive assets and child labour.
It is critical that we work to protect our school feeding programmes during the coronavirus crisis, by collaborating across borders and sectors and sharing information, ideas and solutions.