Students have a meal they received from a government sponsored feeding scheme at the Delta Primary School in Vosburg, South Africa, Nov. 14, 2019.
FILE - Students have a meal they received from a government sponsored feeding scheme at the Delta Primary School in Vosburg, South Africa, Nov. 14, 2019.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - The World Food Program is leading a project to restore school feeding programs for vulnerable children who have been cut off from this nutritional lifeline because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An estimated 388 million children or one in two worldwide had been receiving school meals when the pandemic struck more than a year ago. The World Food Program says this is the highest number of children in history who had been benefiting from this vital source of nourishment.

By April of last year, the U.N. Food agency reports 199 countries were forced to close their schools because of COVID-19 lockdown measures. As a result, it says, 370 million children now no longer receive daily school meals — for many, their only meal of the day.

WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri said his agency has begun to assemble a coalition of stakeholders to help governments restore and boost access to school feeding programs for hundreds of millions of poor children worldwide. He said participants are drawn from governments, development agencies, U.N. and private agencies as well as other sectors.

“The coalition aims to find sustainable and innovative funding sources for school feeding programs, strengthen evidence and guidance to improve said programs, as well as to bring together multiple sectors to achieve better outcomes for school children globally," he said.

Phiri said this initiative comes at a crucial time. He calls school feeding a game changer for many, not just for the children. Phiri said parents, smallholder farmers and communities as a whole benefit when children are not deprived of food essential for their health and well-being.

“Activities help stave off hunger, support longer-term health and help a child to learn and thrive. This is especially true for girls. In places where there is a school meals program, girls attend as well as to stay in school longer. Child marriage rates go down and teen pregnancies decrease,” said Phiri.

The World Food Program says it expects more partners will join the coalition over the coming months before the project is launched at the Food Systems Summit on the margins of the General Assembly in September or October.

The summit, which will be convened by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, aims to transform the way the world produces and consumes food.