The COVID-19 pandemic led to the greatest disruption to education in history, affecting 1.6 billion children and young people. At the peak of the pandemic, governments in more than 190 countries closed educational institutions.
Unsurprisingly, closing schools had serious negative impacts on children’s learning and development. The fact that critical school-based services including school meals also stopped had serious consequences for children’s health and wellbeing.
In the UK where I am a member of parliament, Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to extend the pandemic meals scheme during the holidays shone a welcome light on the central importance of school meals to families, especially those on low incomes.
But these effects on children and families were not unique to the UK. Around the world school closures deprived 388 million children the meal that they would ordinarily receive at school. This means 388 million hungry children and families were scrambling to provide food during that period of unprecedented uncertainty and instability.
Governments across the world emerged from the pandemic with a much clearer understanding of the need to invest in both the education and well-being of their schoolchildren and adolescents. From this, many have a greater appreciation of the need to create national programmes that ensure quality school-based health and nutrition services.
The Coalition has grown into a partnership of 94 member states, with responsibility for over 60 percent of the world’s population, spanning the full range of geographies and across high, middle and low-income countries. This new country-led Coalition is supported by 109 stakeholders, including major UN agencies, development partners and civil society organisations including some of the UK’s leading campaigns like School Food Matters.
Sadly, the UK government has thus far decided not to join.
This is, in my opinion, negligent on behalf of the British government, as the coalition is an incredibly important international group dedicated to expanding the reach and improving the quality of school food. Our government should take pride as a matter of duty in supporting this campaign.
Chief among the successes of the Coalition is the role they have played in restoring school meals programmes internationally, following the decimation of these schemes over the pandemic.
In 2022, according to the World Food Programme, which monitors the coverage of school meals programmes, 418 million children benefited from school meals, up from 388 million in 2020.
This means that the coalition has built these schemes back even stronger than they were before. This incredible progress is testament to the growing recognition by governments of the value of school meals.
However, while some countries had indeed rebuilt and even expanded their school meal programmes, children in low income countries are being left behind as their schemes remain 4 percent below pre COVID-19 coverage levels.
But this isn’t for want of trying. Despite huge economic challenges, low income countries have increased the proportion of national expenditure on school meal programmes, up from 30 percent to 45 percent.
At the same time contributions from donors have fallen from 69 percent to 55 percent which has resulted in lower coverage, even though the poorest countries are taking on an increasing share of the burden.
Sadly, the UK is missing in action once again. It’s not just that we’re not at the table, we’re also not supporting low-income countries, where the need is greatest, to build back their lifeline school food provision.
With David Cameron’s arrival as Foreign Secretary, he has the opportunity to usher in a change of position for the government.
As Prime Minister he hosted the 2013 Nutrition for Growth summit promising that the UK would “play a full part in the battle to beat hunger.” Furthermore, as recently as March this year he spoke at the launch of United Against Malnutrition and Hunger urging UK action in response to “The rapid rise in global malnutrition” including “children going hungry and stunted development”.
As such, if the new Foreign Secretary is able to recognise these problems as his actions in the past suggest, I hope he takes this opportunity to make actionable change and address them.
Last month Coalition members met in Paris at the First Global Summit of the School Meals Coalition hosted by President Macron.
At the summit, multiple countries shared their progress in expanding and improving their programmes, whilst several others made new commitments. Five new countries joined, and Brazil announced it will become the third coalition co-chair, alongside France and Finland.
The key message that emerged from the Summit was that school meals programmes offer an effective and scalable solution to some of our most pressing challenges.
In conflict zones they can promote peace and build confidence in the state. In countries facing food insecurity they can be used to support the local agricultural sector, and centralised school food systems can reduce the carbon footprint of the meals provided which can help tackle climate change.
At a time of runaway inflation and mounting financial pressure on families, school meals provide children and young people with a nutritious meal, safeguarding their development, and easing the pressure on the households from which they come.
School meals work and the UK should be doing more at home and abroad to expand their reach and improve their quality.
As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food here in the UK Parliament, I know that support for school meals crosses party lines. Support across the House and from outside of it has been central to protecting and improving school meals in the UK, not just in recent history, but since feeding children at school started in 1906 with Fred Jowett MP’s Education Act. He called for food to be available to students in school because he believed it was absolutely necessary in order to support children’s learning. Over a hundred years later we are still fighting to provide high quality, accessible school food to children, and this hundred-year crusade is not over yet.
Parliamentary support for school meals will be central to sustaining interest in school meals programmes around the world. That’s why I am excited for the launch of the International Parliamentary Network for Education’s ‘Parliamentary Toolkit on School Feeding’, which they’re creating in partnership with the School Meals Coalition.
It will set out to parliamentarians the case for school feeding and then how they as an MP can work to improve and grow the reach of school meals programmes domestically and as an international development endeavour. I look forward to utilising the toolkit and sharing it with my colleagues.
I also look forward to continuing to build the support in the UK parliament for school feeding both across the UK and around the world. I hope that we will join the School Meals Coalition to build on our commitment to school food as a gold standard public service and the right of all children across the world.