School Feeding: A unique platform to address gender inequalities

Corona measures such as lockdowns not only have serious consequences for the adult population. School closures have led to 90 percent of children worldwide with no access to schools. In many places, however, school meals are the only daily meal for children. Without access to this safety nets, issues like hunger, poverty and malnutrition are exacerbated for hundreds of millions of children and their families. The long-term consequences are particularly serious for girls.

When social shocks and disasters occur, school meals provide a strong incentive for families to keep sending their girls to school. © WFP/Nyani Quarmyne

Carmen Burbano de Lara

Ms. Burbano de Lara is WFP’s world expert in school feeding and a member of the Technical Committee for School Feeding of the Partnership for Child Development at the Imperial College in London. In this capacity, she has advised the governments of China, Colombia and Kenya, Ghana, among others, often in partnership with the World Bank. During her 14 years of experience with WFP, Carmen Burbano de Lara has specialized in supporting governments to strengthen their national social protection and safety net policies and programmes and to tackle malnutrition and food insecurity.

UN World Food Programme (WFP)

World Food Programme

In February 2020, the COVID-19 crisis erupted and became a world-wide pandemic: by mid-March most governments world-wide had resorted to lockdowns. The lockdowns have had well known consequences for the adult population, but the associated school closures have also led to 90 percent of the world’s school age children – 1.6 billion children - with no access to schools.


At the peak of school closures nearly 370 million schoolchildren were missing out on school meals on which they depend – half of them were girls. The consequences could be devastating for these children’s futures. From past pandemics we know that many girls won’t return to school once schools re-open, as families consider the financial and opportunity costs of educating their daughters. A Malala Fund research shows that up to 10 million secondary-school aged girls may never return to the classroom.


In the countries where WFP works, the meal children receive in school is often the only meal they will get in a day. Without the access to such safety nets, issues like hunger, poverty and malnutrition are exacerbated for hundreds of millions of children and their families.


In response to this WFP together with UNICEF have scaled up their support to governments, aiming to reach 10 million of the most vulnerable children with health and nutrition packages. The two agencies are preparing for when schools re-open so that children get a school health and nutrition package on their return. This will help ensure that children whose health has suffered during school closures can recover.


School health and nutrition programmes yield high returns in human capital – the sum of a population’s health, skills, knowledge and experience.


More than 70 countries have adapted their school feeding programmes to continue supporting children during school closures by providing take-home rations, vouchers or cash transfers. About 6.9 million learners in 45 low income countries have been reached since the onset of the crisis with take-home rations by governments with the help of the UN system.


What is convincing countries to include school health and nutrition services as part of their crisis response? They recognize that school health and nutrition programmes yield high returns in four important areas, necessary to build up their communities and their economy: human capital – the sum of a population’s health, skills, knowledge and experience; safety nets for poor children and their families; local economies, especially the earning power of women; and in the area of peace-building, community resilience and preventing future conflict.


An essential safety net for poor children and their families

One of the ways low- and middle-income countries responded to previous crisis, like the 2008 financial crisis was by expanding children’s school meals programs. This is also seen in the scale-up of programs to meet the needs of children in countries affected by conflict, such as Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan. This is because school meals reach into the heart of poor communities and benefit children directly. The food provided is seen by families as having real value, often substituting for around 10 percent of the family income for every child fed throughout the year.


When social shocks and disasters occur, school meals provide a strong incentive for families to keep sending their girls to school rather than taking them out to work or to engage in other activities, often harmful. Helping girls stay in school, especially into adolescence, is an effective way of preventing early marriage and of delaying first pregnancy, both of which can trap women into poverty and chronic ill health.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on school children, with about 1.6 billion children and youth affected by school closures. This has huge implications for students’ learning, health and nutrition. © WFP/Damilola Onafuwa

These school meal programs are especially critical for children who live in areas of fragility, conflict and violence. Globally, around a 150 million people are acutely food insecure and with COVID-19 this number is expected to increase by 80 percent, to 270 million before the end of 2020. Even in informal educational settings, these programs meet basic hunger needs and protect the future of the world’s most vulnerable children. They can help stabilize and rebuild communities affected by conflict or emergencies, as well as preventing child marriages, teen pregnancies and the human rights violations that arise in conflicts.


An investment in the local economy

School meals demand large scale and regular supplies of food, which is an opportunity to increase local spending. The Nigeria Home Grown School Feeding Programme, for example requires 6.8 million eggs, 70 tonnes of farmed fish and commensurate amounts of pulses and vegetables every week, nearly all of it produced in the area where the children who will consume the food live. In Syria, all the snacks distributed in the schools are procured and produced locally.


Tsoko Misette is part of a women’s group called “Bidiu Bi Buala” (Meal of the village) in the Republic of Congo, which produces Mbala Pinda a healthy and nutritious snack, based on local produce that is then distributed in schools. © WFP/Alice Rahmoun

Linking local production to local consumption creates a stable and predictable market for local farmers, especially smallholder farmers, some 70 percent of whom are women and the mothers of the children who are being fed. This injects money into the local rural economy and stimulates the incomes of women farmers.


There are also business opportunities for women. In Nigeria, some 95,000 women who relied previously on precarious local markets for their income can now count on steady incomes as caterers for the school feeding programme and often to earn extra income catering community events.


An essential investment in people

In many low-income countries, the children in middle childhood and adolescence account for almost 40 percent of the total population. Supporting this age group is the key to future health and wellbeing, good education outcomes, and the development of life-long healthy behaviours, including good dietary habits. A recent study by UNESCO highlights school feeding as one of the interventions with the strongest evidence of impact related to gender parity, equality and inclusion in education.


These young people are the future human capital of nations, and the basis of future productivity of countries globally. The dramatic variation in the World Bank’s Human Capital Index across the world’s economic regions highlights the importance of investing in young people today. Countries which invest in providing learning but fail to invest in the nutrition and health of the learner may stumble on the growth and development path.


Nesma is 9 years old and wants to be a Teacher when she grows up. © WFP/Mohammad Gamal

The COVID-19 crisis makes this all much worse. With schools closed, learning for 1.6 billion children has been compromised, especially for those living in low-income countries and poor households. Issues such as lack of access to internet connectivity, educational levels of parents and limited capacity of education systems to sustain remote learning efforts only exacerbate already existing inequalities.


Adolescent girls and other groups which systematically lack equal access to education are at particular risk. Removed from the school environment, the risk that children will be neglected, abused, or exploited increases, especially for girls. The heightened socioeconomic challenges faced by many households can only increase the already high risks of early marriage, early and unwanted pregnancy, and gender-based violence for girls, and possible recruitment by non-state actors in conflict affected countries.


Partnering in an effective global response: an integrated approach to school health and nutrition when re-opening schools

Countries have an opportunity to use this crisis to build more inclusive, efficient, and resilient education systems, with an integrated school health and nutrition package, at scale. Policy responses will be required to help education systems cope with the immediate impacts of school closures, followed by managing continuity, and improving and accelerating learning.


For vulnerable and disadvantaged girls, transformative school meal programs can be a game-changer.


A collective effort will be needed to safeguard the return to a safe school environment with improved education infrastructure, data systems and school health and nutrition services. Many of these children received elements of an integrated package of school health and nutrition prior the crisis, but these interventions rarely reached the poorest children who needed them the most. Estimates from before the pandemic suggested that needed investments in an essential school health package for all vulnerable children represents some 2.5 percent of the current annual investment in primary education, with a benefit–cost ratio estimated at around USD 10 for every dollar invested.


When you consider the trillions to be gained from girls’ education, this is a remarkably smart investment in the future of the world. Of course, the benefits would go to girls and boys, but for vulnerable and disadvantaged girls, transformative school meal programs can be a game-changer.



The German development ministry BMZ has become a crucial partner for WFP to strengthen the resilience and development of vulnerable populations particularly in the MENA region and the African continent. As part of the multi-year support received from BMZ, such as for Yemen and Jordan, WFP was able to provide school meals to vulnerable children. At the same time, support to home grown school feeding programmes in Uganda, not only ensured that children received a healthy meal, but further supported smallholder farmers since produce for the school meals were procured locally. In many countries affected by the Covid-19 pandemic such as Mozambique, the support from BMZ and other donors enabled WFP to adjust its programmes and provide take home rations to school children as an alternative to the school meals while schools are closed, so as to mitigate nutritional shortfalls.


Furthermore, BMZ through the Special Initiative One World No Hunger, has since 2016 supported WFP’s nutrition and resilience measures with multi-year contributions that complement the interventions focused on school feeding, thus ensuring that households basic needs are addressed in a sustainable manner and that pregnant/lactating women and their small children receive adequate nutritional support, which is of key importance during the first 1000 days of a child’s life.

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