New York - Nearly 420 million children benefited from free school meals last year, a new World Food Program report said Tuesday, providing an important safety net as hunger reaches unprecedented crisis levels worldwide.
"Governments worldwide seem to be increasingly recognizing that the health and nutrition of children is something that needs to and must be protected, even in the context of fiscal crises that are affecting the world, and particularly low-income countries," Carmen Burbano, WFP's head of school-based programs, told reporters in a video briefing from Rome.
The State of School Feeding report is the first since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the education of 1.5 billion students and young people around the world, and took away the only guaranteed daily meal for millions of them.
The report says the number of children reached by school meal programs now exceeds pre-pandemic levels. In 2022, WFP says 418 million children worldwide received school meals - 30 million more than just before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Burbano said much of this is due to governments ramping up domestic funding by around $5 billion over the last two years to nearly $48 billion overall for these programs. She said this is happening in both rich and poor countries.
"One of the big findings of the report is that the rally of governments, this domestic mobilization, is unprecedented," she said.
She attributed much of that success to the School Meals Coalition, which was launched in 2021 and seeks to provide a nutritious, free school meal to every child by 2030. More than 75 heads of state have joined the coalition.
"And it's their commitment, it's their mobilization, that's achieved this unprecedented result," Burbano said.
WFP says school meal programs are a critical safety net for vulnerable children and households, especially at a time when 345 million people face crisis levels of hunger worldwide, including 153 million children.
The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts, economic and climate crises, and now Russia's war in Ukraine, have seen food prices rise over the past three years, making it harder for many families to regularly put nutritious meals on the table. While the Food and Agriculture Organization says prices for key food items are beginning to come back down, healthy meals are still not affordable for everybody.
Millions still hungry
But despite successes, disparities persist, and millions of children who need the meals are not getting them.
"We are estimating at the moment about 73 million children living in low-income countries in extreme poverty, with high levels of malnutrition, don't have access to these programs," Burbano said, urging the international community to help bridge that gap.
She said feeding program coverage in low-income countries is only at about 18%, compared with around 60% in high-income countries.
"If you are a child that is born in a country like Niger, like Somalia or Haiti, you have the double whammy of going to school in sub-funded education systems, but also understanding that you are probably going there on an empty stomach. You are probably sick. You are probably hungry. And then we wonder why children are not learning in these countries," Burbano said.
She added that research shows that in low-income countries, 70% of children under age 10 cannot read or write a simple sentence.
"Part of this is because they don't have enough to eat, and they are sitting in these classrooms hungry and without the proper support," she said.
For many low-income families, a free school meal is an added incentive to keep their children in school. This is especially important for girls, who are usually the first ones pulled from the classroom when parents cannot afford to educate all of their children.
For girls, this can have lifelong consequences, including exposure to early marriage and motherhood, and a loss of earning potential. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization says just one more year of school can increase a girl's earnings as an adult by as much as 20%.
School feeding programs don't just benefit the students. WFP says these programs have created 4 million jobs in 85 countries, many of them supporting women who prepare the food, as well as small holder farmers who produce it.