by Kevin Watkins

Millions of children are falling behind in their education as a result of the pandemic, malnutrition, and poverty. But with well-designed and properly financed school meals programs, governments could help to ameliorate this trend, sparing millions from a lifelong cycle of deprivation.

Read the new working paper prepared for the Commission’s Sustainable Financing Initiative (SFI) for School Meals and Nutrition: School Meals Programmes and the Education Crisis: A Financial Landscape Analysis.

This piece was originally published on Project Syndicate on September 2, 2022.

As children across Europe and the United States start a new school year, the world’s governments are gearing up for their own big education moment. At the United Nations Transforming Education Summit (September 16-19), they have a chance to tackle a global learning crisis that has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising levels of child poverty and malnutrition.

They should start by mobilizing behind an old cause with an urgent new resonance: the provision of free school meals to children who would otherwise be left too hungry to learn.

Pandemic school closures deprived hundreds of millions of children of learning opportunities. Poorer countries closed their classrooms for longer than richer countries, with 1-2 entire school years lost across much of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. And in rich and poor countries alike, opportunities for remote learning were heavily skewed toward children in wealthier households.

With schools reopening, the scale of the learning losses triggered by school closures is coming fully to light, along with evidence of widening inequalities. Data from poorer countries point to devastating declines from already-abysmal levels. The World Bank estimates that the share of ten-year-olds who are unable to read a simple story has risen from a pre-pandemic level of 57% to over 70%. One recent study in Malawi found that seven months of school closure led to a loss of more than two years’ worth of foundational learning, with children forgetting concepts mastered before lockdown.

Millions of children are now returning to school carrying the triple burden of lost learning, increased poverty, and malnutrition. Hunger was rising even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added another inflationary twist to the global food crisis. Applying the Food and Agriculture Organization’s regional estimates to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia suggests that 179 million school-age children were living with hunger in 2021 – an increase of 35 million from 2020. In Africa’s case, almost one-quarter of school-age children were suffering undernutrition.

Nor is this crisis restricted to the Global South. In the US, the number of children living in households struggling to put food on the table has increased dramatically over pre-pandemic levels, from 12 million to 18 million. In the United Kingdom, the debate about the cost-of-living crisis has focused mostly on energy prices. But food-price inflation has also squeezed household incomes and left more children hungry. The proportion of children living in food-insecure homes in the UK rose from 12% to 17% in the first quarter of 2022 alone, according to heating bills and food costs rise, the UK is now facing an Autumn child hunger crisis.

For poor and rich countries alike, undernutrition now represents a formidable – and fast-rising – barrier to recovery in learning. As every parent and teacher understands, hungry children struggle to learn. They are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to realize their potential, and at greater risk of being trapped in lifelong cycles of deprivation.

There is an antidote, though. Well-designed and properly financed free school-meal programs can protect children against hunger, unlocking the benefits of education. There is overwhelming evidence that school feeding can increase attendance, reduce dropout rates, and improve learning outcomes, especially for the poorest children.

An evaluation of Ghana’s program found that it increased average learning across the board, with children living in extreme poverty making the greatest gains – the equivalent of nine months of schooling.

The benefits of effective school-meal programs extend beyond education and across generations. India’s Midday Meal scheme – the world’s largest school-feeding program – has raised learning levels, partly by creating incentives to keep girls in education. Recent evidence has shown that girls covered by the MDM also married and had children later, made greater use of health services, and had children who were less likely to be stunted.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many developing countries were expanding school-meal programs, albeit from a low base. In Africa, where around one-quarter of children were covered by such programs, governments had adopted ambitious plans for expanding access. Unfortunately, many of these plans have now been shelved, as unsustainable debt, slower growth, and reduced revenues have shrunk governments’ fiscal space, weakening support for children in a moment of desperate need.

Richer countries were able to use their school-meal programs to protect vulnerable children during the pandemic. For the first time in its 75-year history, the National School Lunch Program in the US was made available to all children without means testing. And in the UK, the soccer player Marcus Rashford cajoled a reluctant government into providing meal support during school holidays. Sadly, these concessions are now being diluted or withdrawn even as hunger increases.

What’s needed now is a global movement for school meals. At this month’s Transforming Education Summit, governments should commit themselves to the goal of universal provision of free school meals.

For the poorest countries, reaching that goal will require international support. The School Meals Coalition estimates that $5.8 billion per year will be needed to restore programs disrupted by COVID-19 and to expand provision to an additional 73 million children. The summit provides an opportunity for governments, aid donors, the World Bank, and other multilateral development banks to specify how they will fill the financing gaps. They should start by backing former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proposal for a new education financing facility.

But this summit must also be for schoolchildren vulnerable to hunger in rich countries. The Children’s Defense Fund has called on US President Joe Biden’s administration to follow California’s example and introduce universal free school meals – an opportunity that it squandered in the new Inflation Reduction Act. In the UK, neither of the candidates to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister has mentioned child hunger as a priority, let alone set an agenda for expanding school feeding. That’s despite the fact that one-in-three British school-age children living in poverty – 800,000 kids – also lack access to free school meals.

Governments and NGOs attending the Transforming Education Summit have been encouraged to “reimagine education.” In the absence of clear goals, a viable strategy, and a sense of collective purpose, that looks like an invitation to another talking shop.

Attendees can “reimagine” all they want. What children need and have a right to expect is bold practical action and adequate financing to alleviate hunger and make learning possible. Delivering anything less would be a travesty.