ROME - Amidst a global food crisis which sees families in many countries struggling to put food on the table, a new report says governments worldwide are increasingly convinced that school meals are a powerful and cost-effective way of ensuring that vulnerable children get the food they need.

Almost 420 million children worldwide receive school meals today, according to the State of School-Feeding Worldwide report, issued today by the UN World Food Programme. At a time when 345 million people face crisis levels of hunger, including 153 million children and young people, school meals are a critical safety net for vulnerable children and households, the report said.

“The near US$ 50 billion industry in school meal programmes worldwide offers a promising opportunity to help secure the future of the world’s children,” the report said, noting that 75 governments have now joined a coalition that aims to ensure every child can receive a daily, nutritious meal in school by 2030.

Thanks to a determined effort by the governments to restore free lunch programmes following the disruption of the COVID pandemic, the number of children receiving meals globally is now 30 million higher than in 2020, representing about 41 percent of all children in school.

“This is good news. Governments are making the wellbeing of children a priority and investing in the future,” said Carmen Burbano, WFP’s head of school-based programmes. “As the world grapples with a global food crisis, which risks robbing millions of children of their future, school meals have a vital role to play. In many of the countries where we work, the meal a child gets in school might be the only meal they get that day.”

The global recovery received crucial support from the government-led School Meals Coalition, an important network for information exchange and advocacy, which was formed in 2020 to respond to the impact of the pandemic, the report noted.

But the report also highlighted differences between the rich world, where 60 percent of school children get meals, and low-income countries where only 18 percent do. While the recovery was rapid in most countries, the number of children fed in school in low-income countries is still 4 percent below pre-COVID levels, with the biggest declines observed in Africa. This was despite low-income countries increasing their domestic financing for school meals by around 15% since 2020.

Some low-income countries have been unable to rebuild their national programmes, and need more help, the report said. In eight African countries, less than 10 percent of school children receive a free or subsidized meal in school, the report showed.

“Investments are lowest where children need school meals the most,” said Burbano. “We need to support low-income countries in finding more sustainable ways of funding these programmes. This will require time-bound support from donor countries as well as increases in domestic investment”.

School meal programmes worldwide offer a range of benefits, the report said, highlighting how a free lunch attracts more children - especially girls – to school, enables them to learn better when they are there and helps them maintain good health. The report also noted that a combination of health and education offers children in low-income countries the best route out of poverty and malnutrition.

Research has shown that school meals programmes can increase enrolment rates by 9% and attendance by 8%. The report also cited research showing that school feeding programmes can have beneficial effects on agriculture, education, health and nutrition, and social protection, with US$ 9 in returns for every US$ 1 invested.

When school feeding programmes are linked to local smallholder farmers, they also benefit local economies and support the establishment of more sustainable food systems. For every 100,000 children fed through a school meal programme, almost 1,400 jobs are created – leading to around 4 million jobs in 85 countries.