For many children across the world, a hot meal provided in school could be the only food they get in a day. This meal may be the only source of nutrients that nourishes not only their brain, but also the body.
Children who come from poor backgrounds are at a higher risk of suffering from hunger since school feeding programmes are their first line of defence against this.
In fact, for 310 million children and their families, school meals are a lifeline, providing nutritious food that they could not get at home.
The government’s extension of school closure by a month could have a major impact on the health and nutrition of school children.
While experts agree that school closures will play an important role in limiting the transmission of coronavirus, families and advocates have concerns about how these will impact communities who rely on schools for a range of public services, including providing low-income children with breakfast and lunch.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has said the closure of schools would mean children could be left without meals.
“This pandemic is having a devastating effect on school children around the world, particularly in developing countries,” said Carmen Burbano, director of school feeding at WFP.
“For children from vulnerable households whose only proper meal is the one they get at school, this turn of events is calamitous. We can shift to online learning, but not online eating. Some solutions are needed and that’s what we’re working on,” he said.
A study by Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the World Bank in Sub-Saharan Africa found school feeding to be an impactful intervention for boosting student learning, particularly in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal.
Another 45 studies of school meal programmes around the world revealed that children receiving a school meal during the entire school year attend class four to seven days more than children who do not.
Dr Bernard Thuo, a nutrition officer, said some students go to school simply to get the meals because they rely on the feeding programmes.
He said Kenya has had instances where food shortage has affected children and increased as the country stared at a higher level of stunting and malnutrition.
Kenya still experiences a malnutrition burden among its under-five population. The national prevalence of under-five overweight is 4.1 per cent. The national prevalence of under-five stunting is 26.2 per cent, which is greater than the developing country average of 25 per cent. Conversely, Kenya’s under-five wasting prevalence of 4.2 per cent is less than the developing country average of 8.9 per cent.
Stunting levels are higher among boys (30 per cent) than girls (22 per cent) and higher among children whose mothers reported they were very small at birth (43 per cent) than among those who were average or larger at birth (24 per cent).
Among rural children, stunting is higher at 29 per cent than urban children (20 per cent). At the regional level, Coast (31 per cent), Rift Valley and Eastern (each 30 per cent) have the highest number of stunted children, while Nairobi (17 per cent) and Central (18 per cent) have the lowest.
In 2010, the government developed a blanket supplementary feeding programme for young children, which was implemented for four months in five northern districts of Kenya because of fears of food insecurity exacerbated by drought.
During this time, humanitarian agencies provided supplementary food for young children during an emergency to prevent weight loss and malnutrition.
Dr Thuo said an assessment done in February revealed that Kenya had a food shortage of about 15 per cent. And that the number has likely gone up with the coronavirus pandemic and locust invasion witnessed in the past few months.
He said the solution lay in food distribution from the government to vulnerable groups. Kenya, however, lacks organised and automated systems for this and this makes the distribution of foodstuff especially hard, he added.
“While this is a good idea to be implemented, the government may face some difficultly in implementing social distancing protocols in crowded areas and so a more feasible way of ensuring families get food is through a cash transfer programme,” he said.