Two United Nations agencies called on the global community Wednesday to prevent hunger and malnutrition among the 370 million children who are not receiving school meals due to the closure of schools worldwide in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.N. said school meals are particularly vital for girls, especially those in poor countries, whose struggling parents often send them to school to get meals, allowing them to avoid domestic responsibilities or early marriage.
"For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only meal they get in a day," said David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP). "Without it, they go hungry, they risk falling sick, dropping out of school and losing their best chance of escaping poverty. We must act now to prevent the health pandemic from becoming a hunger catastrophe."
The U.N. said children in impoverished countries also are missing out on health and nutrition services at school, such as vitamin supplements and vaccinations.
"School is so much more than a place of learning. For many children it is a lifeline to safety, health services and nutrition," said United Nations Children's Fund Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "Unless we act now, by scaling up lifesaving services for the most vulnerable children, the devastating fallout caused by COVID-19 will be felt for decades to come."
The U.N.'s secretary-general recently issued a report indicating hundreds of millions of children are not getting meals at schools due to closures, prompting the WFP and UNICEF to collaborate with national governments to support them during the coronavirus crisis.
The WFP and governments are currently providing children in 68 countries with alternatives to school meals, such as cash transfers, take-home rations and vouchers.
The WFP and UNICEF said they also will soon begin helping governments in the coming months to resume meal, nutrition and health programs when schools reopen.
Additionally, the agencies said they are using internet technology displayed via an online map to track children who are not getting school meals.
UNICEF and the WFP said they are asking for $600 million to initially concentrate on 30 "low-income or fragile" countries.
The agencies said their work is "closely aligned" with the UNESCO-led Global Education Coalition, a worldwide initiative to help guarantee that children are able to keep learning despite the COVID-19 crisis.