COVID-19. No school meals, millions of kids at risk of food insecurity

By Elena L. Pasquini
ROME, Apr 15 2020 (IPS-Partners)

For millions of children around the world, the COVID-19 outbreak means not getting the most important, if not the only, meal of the day.

‘We estimated that around 360 million children [out of 380 million] do not have access to those meals … Of those children, about half of them are in low and lower-middle-income countries’, Carmen Burbano, director of the World Food Programme’s School Feeding division, told Degrees of Latitude.

The most affected are the poorest, those kids already struggling because of war, hunger, food insecurity and poverty, being refugees or internally displaced. Of great concern, there are countries, especially in the Horn of Africa, that have been impacted already by the desert locusts, those who are dependent on food and fuel import, on tourism or remittances.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 85 million participate in school feeding programmes – mainly carried out by governments -, about 10–12 million coming from the most vulnerable families: ‘In our region there are different situations. Argentina or Brazil, [for instance], have strong safety nets … Our concerns are more for countries with very weak institutions … Haiti, which is very fragile, countries in the North part of Central America where the numbers of food insecurity and poverty are still very high … Venezuela …’, Ricardo Rapallo, food security officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, told Degrees of Latitude.

It is not just feeding kids’ bellies

On a typical day at school, children eat a combination of non-perishable and fresh food, often locally procured. World Food Program – which is operating in 51 countries and supporting more than 12 million kids, the poorest in the poorest and most critical areas of the world – is looking for alternatives: take-home rations, vouchers, or cash that families can spend in stores.

‘These kids were receiving crucial nutritional support through those meals. It wasn’t just about feeding their bellies; it was about giving them essential nutrition … Through the meals they were receiving nutritious food, fortified rice or supplements, or things that were preventing anaemia, that were preventing hunger’, Burbano said.

The challenge for the UN Food agency is making sure children continue receiving what they need even if COVID-19 prevention measures affect the food chain. Take-home rations ‘have to be about non-perishable food only. We can’t include things that will go bad in transport, etc.’, Burbano added. Options could include fortified foods or supplementation.

However, packaging, delivery of rations, and even scaling up cash and voucher programmes where these food programmes are already in place is not as easy as it might seem when in critical environments: ‘It’s about being creative about the solutions’, Burbano said. ‘We are trying to use digital technologies as much as possible. We can transfer funds or cash into cell phones or into bank accounts without having contact with the beneficiaries. We are trying to expand our capabilities in that sense’, she said.

“Governments with more capacity are already implementing some of those measures. In Latin America, Rapallo explained, some of them are providing meals to families through army, police, and civil society organizations. Compared to the financial crisis of 2008, many have developed stronger safety nets. In Argentina, for instance, there’s already a programme in place to support mothers with children under five with cash, which is now being increased with the equivalent to the cost of the missed school meals.

When families have to buy food, however, their grocery shopping is changing: less fresh, more non-perishable items such as pasta or rice, easier to find, easier to keep and to store for longer periods. ‘The other face of the coin is that their diet or the food patterns are going to change’, Rapallo said. That’s the concern of FAO, which is providing advice, guidance and recipes ‘to prepare the food to maintain at least some equilibrium and diversify the diet … It is also an opportunity to eat at home, to prepare the food with the children, to make what you are eating more important …’, Rapallo explained.

In the long-term, school closures can also have another impact: ‘Our concern is that not all children are likely to come back to school. [Those] from poor families normally have other responsibilities, they take care of their siblings, they work, etc., and with pulling them out of school, not all families will bring them back, will enrol them back’, Burbano said. But school meals can be an incentive in a ‘Back-to-school’ campaign, for which the World Food Programme and UNICEF are trying to join forces.

Impact on families and communities

Lost access to school meals is not only threatening children’s health, but it is also impacting the most vulnerable families by reducing their income and the rural communities where small-scale farmers represent an important ring in the schools’ supply chain.

“Meals in schools act as a safety net, representing the 10% of the monthly income of those households. ‘If you take away that indirect income, compounded with possible unemployment … loss of livelihoods … this is really catastrophic for families’, Burbano said.

Moreover, a lot of farmers, which are making a living selling food to the schools and many of which are women, are also being affected.

The role of family farming varies from country to country, according to Rapallo. However, in the case of the COVID-19 lockdown’s impact on food distribution, procurement from local markets can be an opportunity: ‘Chains are shorter and … it is more difficult to be closed or to be affected. It seems it can be part of the solution ….’, Rapallo said. In Latin America, supplies from family farmers are a key aspect of the school feeding programmes, particularly in Brazil.

Whatever solutions will be put in place must ensure children are fed and that families and farmers supported. Reflecting on the importance of these programmes, Burbano said, ‘What this crisis has evidenced is the crucial role that social programs, safety netsz programmes, like school feeding, play in the community’.

Photo Credits: WFP/Photolibrary

This story was originally published by Degrees of Latitude

The COVID-19 Cash Crisis: Will the UN Cease to Exist?

Credit: United Nations

By James A. Paul
NEW YORK, Apr 15 2020 – The coronavirus pandemic has set off an unprecedented institutional crisis at the United Nations – funds are drying up, key meetings are cancelled and the world body is fighting for its future.

The chief management officer of the world body, Catherine Pollard, wrote a dire memo on 1 April, setting out the breadth of the crisis, the depth of the financial shortfall, and the emergency steps to be taken immediately to head off ruin.

This UN emergency comes as no surprise, since the pandemic has brought so many governments and institutions to the brink of collapse.

As of the end of March, the UN faced arrears in its dues for regular operations and peacekeeping of $5.43 billion. Worse still, future payments during the course of the year may not arrive as planned, erasing the UN’s scant reserves.

So, the organization faces what Pollard described in her memo as a “liquidity crisis” – that is, the UN may simply run out of money at some point and be unable to pay for its operations and staff. Will the doors be shut and the UN cease to exist?

Depending as it does on government dues and grants, and by statute unable to borrow money, the UN is in an especially difficult position. Can its squeeze through the crisis and return to normalcy?

This is the question that is preoccupying Secretary General Antonio Guterres and his team. But their prognostications are clouded by the fact that UN budgets have already been cut repeatedly in recent years and a hostile president sits in the White House.

Further, UN activities focus so heavily on meetings, negotiations and other settings in which virus transmission is especially likely. The critically important climate conference, scheduled for November 2020, has already been cancelled. Other cancellations have been announced and more are sure to come.

What cards does Guterres have to play? He must, of course, emphasize the need for common global action, both now and in the future. Narrow nationalism, however in vogue in certain countries, clearly cannot protect the world from corona, climate melt-down, species extinction and other existential crises.

The UN and its system of specialized agencies can and must be at the forefront of any reasonable program for a viable planetary future.Another card in Guterres’ hand is the extraordinarily small cost of the UN in comparative terms.

The UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets are together less than $10 billion. The regular budget of $3 billion, covering all the UN’s global activities except peacekeeping, is about a thirtieth of the budget of the city of New York!

Any needed assistance for the UN would be very small indeed in comparison to the massive bailouts, some well over a trillion dollars, being announced by major governments, the European Union, and the IMF.

A rescue package for the UN is easy to imagine in that context, but would there be the necessary political support? That would depend on leadership from supportive governments, media and, of course, civil society groups, at a time when many other concerns beckon.

It will not be easy, but neither was the rescue of the UN from its financial crisis in the 1990s.

The hardest part of a bid for special consideration will be to envision the UN in an inventive way in the new world that will emerge post-corona. What can the UN bring to that future world that will be unique and indispensable?
How might it offer a way forward that would win the backing of a broad coalition of thinkers and organizers and ordinary people? Bold moves will be called for, not mere survivalist strategies.

Obviously, much depends on how long the shutdowns last and how different the post-corona world proves to be. If the virus is in substantial retreat by the summer and economies open up “normally” again, the flow of funds to the UN might resume relatively swiftly.

Then a shaky status quo for the UN would be most likely. But if governments open their economies prematurely and those moves are followed by renewed outbreaks and then a broad political crisis, all bets will be off.

That would be the time of greatest danger for the UN but also its greatest opportunity. We can hope that the virus would eventually succumb to human ingenuity and that in its wake a new era of solidarity and internationalism, nurtured by a stronger UN, would eventually prevail.