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The United Nations wants to educate children – it will only succeed if it feeds children first | Kevin Watkins

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MMore than 100 years have passed since social reformer Margaret MacMillan fought for free school meals in the UK and won. As an inspector at an elementary school in Bradford, she saw hungry poor children unable to learn and robbed them of the promises of universal education. The groundbreaking 1906 Education Act provided public funding for children’s diets that were “impossible due to food shortages to maximize the education provided.”

The phrase should be central to the agenda of the United Nations Transformation Education Summit scheduled for September. Convened by the UN Secretary-General, this is a global opportunity to tackle the hunger crisis that is jeopardizing the recovery of learning lost during the closure of Covid-19 schools. Still, the UN agencies, the World Bank, and the governments that formed the summit were unable to keep track of nettles.

Perhaps that’s because hunger among school children is hidden. Much of the international data focuses on child health for the first 1,000 days of life. It obscured the importance of 8000 days for a child to transition to adulthood. Formative primary and adolescent nutrition is important for health and cognitive development.

Whatever the reason for neglect, the wake-up call has been postponed for a long time. Earlier this month, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released data on malnutrition rates across developing regions. Applying these rates to school children captures the deadly interaction between poverty and food price inflation. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the global centers of child hunger, there are approximately 180 million children aged 5 to 18 years who experienced undernourishment in 2021, reaching a pre-pandemic level of 7600. It exceeds 10,000 people. Currently, a quarter of African school children are trying to learn while dealing with hunger.

The reality is almost certainly worse than the numbers indicate. FAO data does not yet include food price inflation caused by the Ukrainian war. Wealth and gender disparities also weigh heavily. Less than half of South Asian adolescent girls receive adequate dietary intake. Micronutrient deficiency and anemia (a major barrier to learning) are endemic. In Africa, malnutrition is a major cause of health problems in primary school children and adolescents in poor families.

Nothing is more barbaric than hungry and destroys your learning potential. Malnourished children are unable to concentrate and absorb information. They are also likely to drop out of school, partly because they have not learned, and partly because poverty drives the poorest children into the labor market and their children’s marriages.

Students queue for lunch in New Delhi, India. Photo: Mannish Swarap / AP

School lunch programs help reverse the downward spiral. Feeding children at school can protect them from malnutrition, increase enrollment, reduce dropout rates, and improve learning. Evidence from the Indian lunch scheme shows that the female children who attended when they were in school are less likely to become dysgenetic.

Much of the infrastructure for providing school meals is already in place. Prior to the pandemic, these programs were the largest safety net in the world, reaching more than 300 million children in the poorest countries.

The pandemic has changed this situation dramatically. Classroom closures cut the nutritional lifeline provided by school meals and leave many children free of the main or only diet of the day. The financial space available to governments attempting to recover and expand the program has shrunk due to slower growth, lower tax revenues and unsustainable debt. Education budgets have been cut in two-thirds of the poorest countries.

As school resumed, children returned with the double burden of loss of learning and increased hunger. The World Bank estimates that from 53% before the pandemic, 70% of 10-year-olds live a “learning poverty” life and cannot read simple stories. Research has been conducted one after another, and the deterioration of learning has been recorded in combination with the increase in inequality. Dropout rates are beginning to increase in many countries, and adolescent girls face higher risks.

Regaining the momentum behind school meal offerings could change this situation. It will cost about $ 5.8 billion a year to reach another 73 million children. This is an investment that can protect children from hunger, restore learning and support the budgets of extremely poor households. According to one study, this also represents the value of money. For every $ 1 you invest, you make an additional $ 9. Still, major donors have avoided aid to school meals – and the World Bank, the largest source of development funding for the poorest countries, does not have a school meal strategy.

Return to the summit. Last month, the United Nations organized a preparatory jamboree that brought together dozens of governments, UN agencies, and NGOs to “rethink, rethink” the purpose of education and consider evidence and table solutions. What emerged was less of an action agenda than a stream of consciousness that lacked funding commitments and strategies for funding. Margaret MacMillan would have been spinning her grave.

Without a credible response to the hunger crisis, there would be no change in education. Children at the sharp end of the crisis don’t need a store to tell another story. They need a well-funded action plan to provide what all parents reading this article demand from their children: the opportunity to be free from hunger and learn.