Gabi Fretes examines changes in school meals programs during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Latin America and Caribbean region and the potential effects of these changes on schoolchildren’s nutrition and food security.
According to the World Food Program (WFP), more than 350 million children worldwide are missing out on school meals due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, school closures are in force in 199 countries worldwide and the overall objective of this measure is to slow the spread of the virus. The disruption in educational activities caused by school closures can have impacts not only on schoolchildren’s education, but also on other aspects of their lives, such as health, nutrition and food security. In the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region, nearly all countries implement school meals programs. With school closures, about 80 million schoolchildren in the region are at risk of not receiving nutritious meals every day as they used to.
School meals programs are a key instrument of social protection and application of the human right to food, being the human right to food understood as one of the key components of human development. Primarily, the program provides resources to vulnerable families, but it also supports the development of family farming and local markets where it is linked with smallholder’s production of fruits, vegetables and fresh products like eggs. Establishing linkages between local farms and schools can provide farmers with enabling conditions to participate in food markets and, can add more diversity and improve the nutritional value of school meals. By supporting children in schools and farmers in the communities, the school meals program contributes to the interruption of the cycle of poverty while promoting food security. With classes shut down, the COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges to governments to deliver school meals to students.
National lockdowns and social distancing measures could affect schoolchildren’s nutrition and food security through multiple pathways in the short, medium and long term. Particularly in the LAC region, existing social inequalities would contribute to differential impacts and likely harm the most vulnerable groups. In the short term, we may expect an increase in the prevalence of moderate food insecurity and poverty because many families have lost their jobs and therefore cannot afford to feed children who are out of school. In the medium term, food insecurity could become severe and make children and their families more susceptible to illness. Additionally, since many families consider school meals as an incentive for sending children to school and retaining them there, we may see an increase in school dropout rates because families suddenly lost that food incentive. Lastly, the lack of access to nutritious foods both in quantity and quality could increase the prevalence of all forms of malnutrition (undernutrition, overnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies). To mitigate these effects, it is key that governments ensure that people have access to sufficient, diverse, safe and nutritious foods, necessary for strengthening people’s immune systems, improving their capacity to cope with diseases and in the end, guaranteeing nutrition and food security.
Many children depend on school meals to get essential nutrients and meet their daily requirements, therefore it is imperative that they continue receiving meals, even if schools are closed. Along these lines, national responses have been diverse. Most countries in the region have modified the delivery mechanism as well as the food composition of meals. Delivery mechanisms include, for example, take-home meals in Uruguay, food baskets/packages in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Paraguay and, cash for families in Peru. The Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) has nicely summarized school meals program responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in different regions of the world. While food delivery through schools have been successful in urban areas, there is some concern with children in rural areas where transportation may be limited, and a strategy of home deliveries could work better. Several countries in the LAC region regularly included fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, and eggs as part of school meals. However, with the pandemic, the food composition of meals has changed in most countries, especially in those that are currently providing food baskets/packages instead of a hot meal. In general, food baskets/packages include non-perishable foods like rice, beans, oil, and sugar and do not include fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. Exceptions are Costa Rica and Chile. In Costa Rica, food baskets include fresh foods sourced from smallholder farmers. In Chile, the Ministry of Education designed a system to deliver food baskets to about 1.6 million students that are beneficiaries of the school meals program. Food baskets include milk, cereal, eggs, legumes, tuna, rice, pasta, and fruit for 10 days of breakfast and lunch. Although including fresh products can be logistically complex, Chile and Costa Rica show that it is possible. However, several aspects of the school meals program depend on contextual factors that allow or limit governments to implement the preferred delivery mechanism or to have control over the foods that are included in the baskets in times of crises. For instance, the existence of government procurement schemes that allow non-perishable food purchases from smallholder farmers can simplify the process to include non-perishable foods like fruits and vegetables in food baskets.
In the past decade, school meals programs have been evolving in the LAC region to respond to different challenges. School meals programs are key components of national social protection systems and many countries in the region use a rights-based approach (to realize children’s right to food) with specific policies and legal instruments to ensure children have access to nutritious and safe foods at school. With the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have adapted the programs to the current needs, but it is important to recognize that the problems children face today are not the same as a few decades ago. For instance, on the nutrition front, there has been progress in reducing undernutrition, but overweight and obesity in children have maintained an upward trend in the region. Today, with all forms of malnutrition and food insecurity affecting millions of children, it is timely to promote good nutrition and healthy eating habits and take into account not only quantity but also quality of school meals. Although being at home could be an opportunity for children to learn healthy eating habits, cook with the family and talk more about food values and culture, this is not the case for the majority. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us the crucial role that school meals programs play in the community and, the need to have in place protocols to continue delivering school meals during crises.
While most governments in the LAC region adapted the school meals program to the current pandemic, there is still room for improvement. In times of crisis, it is essential that governments prioritize integrated actions, by involving multiple stakeholders and focusing on the most vulnerable populations. If action is not taken, decades of progress in tackling all forms of malnutrition in the region could be lost. For exceptional situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that governments apply exceptional measures to protect children’s health and nutrition. Here are some recommendations to take into account in times of crises:
- Guarantee access to safe and nutritious foods to the most vulnerable: urban-poor, rural and indigenous school-age children need to be prioritized. Meals delivered as part of the school meals program should maintain the quantity and quality of food. The government agency that delivers school meals need to work in coordination with the Ministry of Health to make sure all protocols are followed in the delivery process.
- Expand the coverage of social protection programs: countries that have already in place a strong social protection network can expand to families that are vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis to complement the school meals program and help children’s families. If this measure is legally supported, it can help the country be better prepared for future crises.
- Keep connections with local food supply chains: for programs that link school demand for food with smallholder’s production, keep those connections when possible. This action is a win-win: students receive fresh foods and farmers keep their income. For countries that do not follow this model, this can be the ideal time to consider such connections and promote local food consumption.
- Include menus and recipes with the food baskets/packages to take the most advantage of them: governments can use the Food-Based Dietary Guidelines recommendations to design menus and recipes, so they are culturally appropriate.
Gabi Fretes is a PhD candidate in the FNPP program. Currently, she is working on her dissertation evaluating food labeling policy impacts on children’s and adolescents’ diets in Chile. She loves to cook traditional food from her home country, Paraguay and, travel around the world (except for this unusual year).