Marcus Rashford has shone a spotlight on childhood hunger

The pandemic has left millions of school children hungry but solutions are in sight

Children eat a meal at a pre-school in Chennai. AFP

For a hero of the pandemic, the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford fits the bill pretty well. His campaign for free school meal provision saw him receive the honour of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – or MBE – last month.

The demands for provision of a meal for every child, where circumstances mean they would go hungry, have been very successful in the UK. The principle has also taken on a much greater profile across the globe.

Making the school a place where children can anchor their nourishment makes sense not just of developmental challenges – it is often a matter of life and death. As the year comes to a close, we must all take this sliver of encouragement into 2022. For, making real progress on this issue is something we can all cheer on, if not get directly behind.

The launch of the School Meals Coalition earlier this month by a number of frontline UN agencies is a demonstration of how serious the challenge has become.

The initiative seeks to address the impact of Covid-19 on children. The World Food Programme (WFP) has authored studies that showed 380 million children benefited from school meals in early 2020 before the onset of the pandemic. It estimates now that 238 million children are back at school and receiving food as part of the daily routine.

With greater deprivation, its researchers believe that another 150 million children need subsidised or free meals to address the worst shortages. The WFP adds that another 73 million children are simply falling through the cracks and not receiving any help.

Yasmine Sherif of the campaign group Education Cannot Wait points out that in crisis-stricken nations, a meal at school can be the only food some children will eat all day – and that itself forms an important incentive for parents to overcome hurdles to getting their children to go to school in the first place.

Creating a global infrastructure to reach the hard-hit regions is the key thing that will make a difference. This works at two levels. One is breaking barriers that stop children getting to schools where the institutions continue to function. A second is creating alternative means of distribution of meals where children are unable to attend a classroom. The golden principle is that the provision should always be tied in some way to continuing education.

British footballer Marcus Rashford being made an MBE during an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle earlier this month.

Acting now, as more schools are opening or have moved beyond lockdowns, would mean that there is a smaller negative legacy from the pandemic to address going forward.

A UK government report issued last week into the individual and social impact of the 2020 lockdowns notes the special nexus between free school meals and hardship as a result of schools closing. It says that 28 per cent of children eligible for the UK’s free school meal programme also had special educational needs and were particularly hard to reach during the school closures. That compares with a 13 per cent incidence of special educational needs across the whole population.

The report also includes children with "challenging home environments", a term that covers heightened risk of abuse as well as living in temporary accommodation. In recent weeks, the UK has seen court cases involving two couples who killed their children when the lockdown was at its height. Social service provision was not able to reach the children at risk.

Leaving aside the malicious and psychotic nature of the parents, British footballer Rashford’s main point is that many parents at “rock bottom” are incapable of seeking help for their children. The trap is not only that there are no resources to provide food but also that there is no initiative to resolve the hardship by their own means.

Not all countries have enshrined the right, or progress towards it, in law.

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Many parents at 'rock bottom' are incapable of seeking help for their children

In the UK, there is the equality legislation that could do exactly that but has so far failed to do so. The country’s education secretary is under an obligation to “advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it”. A 2017 consultation by the government on free school meals in England asked for the impact on the characteristics that drive disadvantage. Yet, the battle goes on for campaigners to widen access even in the UK.

The spirit of Rashford was displayed by Dayjanta Samuels, a nine year old in the UK who appealed for support for his mother who was struggling to pay the household bills. Inflation has topped 5 per cent in the UK and Christine has just lost her job as a carer. "I wish I was older so I could pay the bills with her,” he said earlier this month.

On Friday, he was thanking well-wishers for sending gifts and donations that means the family could look forward to Christmas Day. But the episode demonstrates how children take on the worries of their parents.

Almost everywhere in the world, school is the first external experience that a child takes on to learn within a structured environment. Nutrition is practically as vital to educational development as maths and literature. This is especially the case for those with little to nothing at home.

Published: December 25th 2021, 2:00 PM
Updated: December 28th 2021, 3:29 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.