By the end of last year, the crisis in the world market for wheat and maize had pushed up food inflation in sub-Saharan Africa by 11%.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine threatens to further disrupt the global food system by dramatically increasing the cost of staple foods and the energy needed to transport them.
The Black Sea region is responsible for exporting at least 12% of global food calories, so cutting off access to it will have far-reaching effects.
Food prices were already skyrocketing due to post-pandemic market imbalances and supply chain pressures, as well as climate-related production losses. By the end of last year, the crisis in the world market for wheat and maize had pushed up food inflation in sub-Saharan Africa by 11%. Now poor countries face another shock at a time when they have little room to accommodate it.
Even before the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, vulnerable households in developing countries devoted a significant part of their budget to food. Further increases in the cost of food could lead children in these households to suffer significant and irreversible nutritional losses. They might go to school hungry or even drop out to help supplement their family’s income. Given the massive learning losses suffered by children in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) due to pandemic-related school closures, any further disruption could have devastating consequences.
Fortunately, most countries have a proven tool to protect their most vulnerable children in these circumstances. School meal programs are considered the largest social safety net in the world. Before the pandemic, these programs reached 388 million children in 161 countries.
There is ample evidence that the provision of school meals is an important tool to keep poor and vulnerable children in class in food insecure areas. This is true even during systemic shocks such as droughts which can affect the overall food supply. Many developing countries recognized the value of school meals as a tool for social protection when global food prices soared following the global financial crisis of 2008. Over the past decade, a growing number of PRITI have integrated school meals into their national budgets as a cost-effective way to improve the health and educational outcomes of schoolchildren.
In the context of rising food and fuel prices, buying food in bulk and preparing meals in a school can potentially generate economies of scale and efficiency that help reduce overall costs. . A recent study based on the National School Lunch Program in the United States shows that school nutrition programs help lower prices in grocery stores by reducing private food purchases.
Countries exposed to the negative effects of the current turmoil in food and energy markets should strive to strengthen these programs. But consistently providing nutritious school meals to a significant portion of the school population can nonetheless be prohibitively expensive for countries with limited resources. A rough calculation based on data from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation indicates that to expand coverage of school meals programs in LMICs at the current global median level would require the equivalent of 5% of the global education budget of a country.
One of the first steps countries can take to stabilize and eventually expand school meals programs is to improve the efficiency and ensure accountability of existing programs. Developing countries have seen many noble public sector initiatives that began with much promise, only to succumb to mismanagement and eroded public trust.
School meals programs involve large public procurement, an area in which many developing countries have significant weaknesses. To help maintain organizational and financial integrity, managers should therefore commit to subjecting these programs to routine independent audits.
Effective targeting is also crucial, especially at a time when global prices are high and gains from leveraging existing resources may be limited. Poorly targeted interventions can leave the intended beneficiaries of a program even further behind. Additionally, attempts to expand school meals programs too quickly can end up straining financial and organizational capacity, undermining existing operations.
Encouraging governments to improve their school meals programs should go hand in hand with support from development partners to provide financial relief, especially in light of the debt crisis looming over a number of countries. Currently, the national budgets of many LMICs are burdened with debt service payments, which in some cases consume almost half of total government revenue. In these circumstances, programs such as school meals are often the first to be eliminated or reduced. For example, growing debt recently forced Ghana to suspend a planned expansion of its school meals program.
One way the international community can help countries struggling with the twin crises of food inflation and over-indebtedness is to promote debt-for-development swaps, such as the one the World Food Program brokered between the Mozambique and Russia in 2017. Although the process of negotiating these exchanges is too slow to meet emergency needs, they can be a powerful tool to facilitate the long-term allocation of more resources to meal programs schools in highly indebted countries.
As geopolitical crises and climate disasters dominate the headlines, a whole generation of poor and vulnerable children in places far from the spotlight are at risk of slipping through the cracks. Keeping these children in school and well fed is the least the global community can do to prepare them for an uncertain future. — Project syndicate
Biniam Bedasso is a senior research associate at the Center for Global Development.