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How is coronavirus affecting the provision of free school meals?

The pandemic has required school closures across many countries, disrupting the provision of meals for pupils. What are the risks for children – and their families – who lose access to these programmes? And what could policy-makers do to mitigate the risks?

School meal programmes are an important feature of many social welfare systems. By improving nutrition, these programmes contribute to children’s behavioural, health and educational outcomes. The Covid-19 crisis poses serious challenges in terms of school meal provision and its effects on pupil wellbeing.

What does evidence from research tell us?

Malnutrition at an early age can have long-term consequences for health, education and labour market outcomes (Almond and Currie, 2011). Conversely, a nutritious diet improves both short and long-term health outcomes, and boosts cognitive development in early life.

School meal programmes play a vital role in providing a nutritious diet for children, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds who would otherwise have limited access to healthy meals. Evidence suggests that school meal programmes have a positive effect on a range of nutritional outcomes (Alderman and Bundy, 2012).

Recent studies find that undernourishment in young children is particularly prevalent in developing countries (Best et al, 2010). In part, this explains the considerable attention given to the role of school meal programmes in these countries, where schools might constitute the only infrastructure able to provide meals to children affected by malnutrition (Bommer et al, 2020).

In developing countries, school meals have been found to be effective in improving children’s nutritional intake (Afridi, 2010); growth (Singh et al, 2014); school attendance (Vermeersch and Kremer, 2005; Afridi, 2011); classroom attention (Afridi et al, 2013); and test scores (Vermeersch and Kremer, 2005).

School meal programmes are also linked to educational outcomes. There are four main channels through which a better diet can influence learning (Sorhaindo and Feinstein, 2006). A healthy diet can:

  • reduce the likelihood of illness leading to fewer school absences;
  • improve the ability to concentrate;
  • reduce pupil misbehaviour;
  • and lead to increased social inclusion at school.

There is ample empirical evidence of the effectiveness of school meal programmes in improving pupil wellbeing. Evidence suggests that Feed Me Better, a UK campaign aimed at improving nutritional standards in schools, had a positive effect on educational achievement in English and science, and also led to a substantial reduction in pupil absences from school (Belot and James, 2011).

Other studies provide evidence on long-term effects. School lunch programmes in India are associated with improvements in test scores, and the longer that pupils are exposed to these programmes, the larger the corresponding increase in test scores (Chakraborty and Jayaraman, 2019).

School meal programmes can also influence various forms of pupil misbehaviour, for example, bullying or school violence. There is evidence to suggest that the introduction of universal school meal programmes in Korean schools reduced pupil misbehaviour by approximately 35%, leading, in particular, to fewer physical fights between pupils (Altindag et al, 2020).

Other studies focus on the effects not just of whether pupils are exposed to school meal programmes, but also when they are exposed to them. For example, one study finds that a healthy school breakfast programme implemented in Norway had a long-term effect on educational attainment (years of schooling), future occupational status and earnings (Bütikofer et al, 2018).

The effect on years of schooling is stronger when pupils are exposed to the school meal programme at a younger age. A study looking at the effects of free school lunches in Swedish primary schools reaches a similar conclusion: pupils who benefited from the programme at an earlier age see a larger increase in future earnings (Petersen et al, 2016).

The evidence summarised above suggests that school meal policies are most effective when implemented at a young age, and when children are exposed to them for a long period of time. This is likely to be because dietary habits are quite difficult to change once already formed – interventions targeting adults therefore tend to be much less effective than similar policies targeting children, whose habits may still be forming at a young age (Belot et al, 2018).

Related question: How might the crisis affect children from poorer backgrounds?

How does lockdown affect school meal programmes and their impact on pupil wellbeing?

Lockdown measures, and subsequent school closures, can disrupt the provision of school meal programmes. But the extent to which this disruption takes place depends on the policy response of fiscal authorities. Here, we consider two possible scenarios:

  • school closures prevent the provision of school meal programmes completely;
  • and school closures lead to the replacement of these programmes by alternative policies.

No government provision of school meals

According to a recent estimate by the World Food Programme (WFP), 300 million primary school children who depend on free school meals miss out on them due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The United Nations (UN) estimates this number to be 368.5 million children across 143 countries (UN, 2020).

For most of these children and their families, school meals constitute a staple good. Not having access to school meals therefore puts these households at a significant risk of food poverty. This issue may be particularly pertinent in developing countries, where in many cases, schools are the only providers of regular meals for children.

Developing countries respond to the disruption in school meal provision using a variety of different policies (WFP, 2020). In some countries, the WFP stepped in to provide take-home rations to children who are eligible for free school meals. In some cases, these rations constitute hot meals, whereas in others they only include snacks (WFP, 2020).

How effective these programmes are going to be depends to a large extent on how closely they can replicate the nutritional content of regular school meals. Substitute programmes that fail to provide children with the appropriate level of nutrition will have negative (and possibly long-term) consequences for children’s health and development.

In other countries, the provision of school meals has seized up completely due to school closures, while some countries, such as Brazil or Peru, use cash transfers to eligible families as a substitute. While this is better than them not receiving any meals at all, cash transfers in developing countries may be insufficient if families struggle to acquire food items due to lockdown-driven disruptions in local food distribution (UN, 2020). Cash transfers may also induce families to consume less healthy alternatives to school meals, negating the positive effects of the programmes on children’s diets.

Related question: How will lockdown and the recession affect children's health?

Alternative policies to provide meals to children

In other cases, mostly in wealthier countries, governments and local authorities can find substitute programmes to provide meals to children during school closures. In England, the government’s school meal programme involved 1.3 million children receiving free school meals in 2019 (HM government, 2019). During the school closures due to Covid-19, free school meals were replaced with either food deliveries from food banks, deliveries from local schools or food vouchers that recipients could spend at local supermarkets.

Food banks

Consider the case of food banks in the UK. According to the Trussell Trust, over the period from March 2018 to April 2019, food banks distributed nearly 1.6 million items of emergency food supplies, 30% of which were provided to children. As lockdown came into force, the demand for deliveries from food banks increased substantially. The Trussell Trust nearly doubled its usual volume in the last two weeks of March and in April.

This high (and sudden) spike in demand is partly due to shortcomings in government intervention, for which food banks cannot substitute. Food banks, many of which are run on a voluntary basis, will require increased government support to manage increased demand, which is due not only to school closures but also to the various social and economic effects of lockdown.

Collection/delivery from local schools

The provision of food parcels through collection or delivery is the first option available to schools, as stated in UK government guidelines. At first glance, this should work just as well as the usual in-school provision, the only difference being that pupils eat their meal at home and not at school. Yet the UK guidelines specify that schools use ‘longer shelf life products, such as frozen foods or foods that can be safely stored at room temperature’, thus providing an incentive for schools to alter the nutritional content of school meals.

As discussed above, the primary objective of school meal programmes is to improve children’s nutrition. If the substitute meals that are offered under the school collection/delivery option are lower in nutritional content, the dietary effects of the programme might be negated. This could also lead to children missing out on key early influences on their dietary habits.

If children continue to be exposed to lower quality alternatives – perhaps due to repeated school closures as subsequent waves of the virus emerge – this could have a long-term detrimental effect on their development, negating all the indirect educational and labour market effects of school meal programmes.

Food vouchers

Alternatively, schools can provide food vouchers to families of pupils who are eligible for free school meals. In the UK, families are entitled to a £15 per week voucher per child, which they can redeem in almost any supermarket. Although the voucher scheme should resolve the logistical issues related to school food parcels, many families have still been experiencing delays in their delivery. But most importantly, the food voucher scheme leaves it to families ‘to select the most appropriate food and drink for their child’.

Recall that one of the main objectives of school meal programmes (and similar early dietary interventions) is to have a positive influence on children’s dietary habits at an age when those habits are still malleable. In families where other, less healthy, dietary habits prevail, food vouchers are imperfect substitutes for school meal programmes as they do not encourage a shift in children’s dietary preferences.

Related question: What difference will the COVID Summer Food Fund make to children's lives?

What does the future hold?

In the future, the likely effects of Covid-19 on school meal provision, and the consequent effects on children’s health and education all fundamentally depend on the way that the current public health crisis unfolds. This will, once again, vary across countries.

In countries where the pandemic is contained, school closures will not be needed, and school meals can be provided as normal. In countries that are facing new waves of the virus, which make further school closures necessary, there could be continuous or repeated disruptions to school meal programmes.

Time is of the essence here. Short disruptions in school meals programmes, mitigated by suitable substitute policies, are less likely than longer disruptions to have long-term detrimental effects on children’s health and development. This is especially true for younger cohorts of children, who could be missing out on the early interventions necessary to establish healthy dietary habits that could potentially persist for a lifetime.

Regardless of how long the public health crisis lasts, it is therefore essential that governments fund alternative policies that provide children with healthy meals during school closures.

Where can I find out more?

The WFP’s school feeding map provides a useful resource to track the state of school meal programmes in different countries during the Covid-19 pandemic.

An OECD note on the effects of school closures, including the disruption in school meal programmes.

What the G20 should do now: Erik Berglöf, Gordon Brown, Helen Clark and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on the global policy response to Covid-19, including how countries and international organisations should tackle the issue of food poverty.

Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Daniel Borbely and Gennaro Rossi 
Picture by monkeybusinessimages on iStock
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