Mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food and nutrition of children at school

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Mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food and nutrition of children at school

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Today, being fully mobilised to help safeguard schoolchildren’s food security is not an option — it is our duty.

Before the pandemic, 690 million people were already undernourished, and an estimated 270 million more people could be at the brink of starvation by the end of the year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The impact of COVID-19 on people, businesses and society as a whole is unprecedented: the World Bank warned that the crisis is expected to push as many as 150 million more people into extreme poverty by the end of next year, including many children around the world. Starting as early as 1996, Sodexo teams in the United States created the Stop Hunger initiative to ensure that every child grows us with dependable access to nutritious food. Employees started by serving free meals to children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods who were at risk of not eating proper meals when school cafeterias were closed during the summer. What started as a great local initiative expanded across the globe; the scope of the food aid we provide grew tremendously as Sodexo committed to eliminating hunger as part of its mission to improve quality of life and contribute to communities across the world. Stop Hunger engages over 120,000 volunteers[1], supports hundreds of local and international NGOs, and has helped 44 million of the most vulnerable people over the last five years.

Within the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments have been pushed to take preventive measures including closing schools and universities in many countries. These closures — whether partial or full — impact not only a child’s or student’s right to education, but also their right to adequate food. For millions of children around the world, the meal they eat at school is the only one they eat in a day. Far beyond our clients, we understood the impact that COVID-19 has had on the communities we serve and recognised the need to step up. For instance, the initiative by our teams in Michigan is an impressive example of our efforts to support. While the Flint School District only enrolls 4,000 students, the USDA and Michigan Department of Education teamed up with SodexoMAGIC[2] to serve meals to any child in the city under the age of 18. We went from serving 4,000 meals a day across our schools to 12,000 meals across the entire city of Flint – with just half the workforce. With 22 school busses, we delivered food directly to the homes of the most disadvantaged areas, so families without transportation could easily collect meals. We have also created drive-up distribution points. Demand was high, and at the biggest location, we distributed 3-4,000 meals a day — with a line that seemed to go on forever.

Hunger is a devastating issue, but so is food waste. As schools and nurseries have had to shut doors, our duty has been to make sure no food is thrown away. We have collaborated with our clients, local food banks and hospitals to recuperate food that would otherwise go to waste, instead donating it to those in need. During the first wave of lockdowns, our first move was to shift inventories from closed sites — like schools and universities — to active sites such as hospitals and government buildings. We then doubled down by empowering our site managers and chefs to find donation options for perishable food from our client sites. In France alone, that resulted in 26 tons of food donated to essential workers on the frontline. In Italy, after the sudden closure of schools in February, our teams immediately worked to recover the food from our sites and donate it to charitable associations and families in economic difficulty. The donation covered seven Italian regions, totaling 17 tons of food and 33,000 meals — a genuine effort by our teams to support the needs of their local community. 

Also on the Forum Network: Hunger in Abundance: Why we need food banks to reduce food insecurity and prevent food waste by Jacques Vandenschrik, President, European Food Banks Federation

Today, as COVID-19 continues to provoke anxieties and exacerbate vulnerabilities, it is essential to build the conditions to regain a collective confidence in a “with COVID-19” world.  Reopening schools or nurseries safely was a critical step to reassure parents. Our teams prepared a specific reopening plan to preserve the well-being of our school communities: staggering mealtimes, ensuring proper distancing when queuing, mask wearing, hand cleaning, adjusted seating, and so on. Yet this challenging situation has also pushed us to look differently at how we can better serve student needs to revitalise and restore quality of life on campus. For instance, in Singapore, we’ve included classroom delivery options in our school dining facilities. In the United States, we’ve introduced robots to deliver meals from designated campus restaurants.   

We must consider a more equitable business model that puts people at the centre, and ensure more inclusive growth within and across communities.               

This unprecedented crisis has brought to light the essential role played by the service industry and our people in the global campaign to fight the virus. I want to pay a heartfelt tribute to our employees, who have been exemplary under difficult conditions. I am very grateful for their mobilisation and their resilience. The crisis has also highlighted a crucial challenge of our time: high and rising inequalities of income and opportunities that undermine social cohesion and economic growth. We must consider a more equitable business model that puts people at the centre and ensure more inclusive growth within and across communities.

[1] This number was recorded before the pandemic.
[2] SodexoMAGIC is a joint venture formed in 2006, between Magic Johnson Enterprises, LLC, which is owned by NBA Hall of Famer, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Sodexo, Inc. SodexoMAGIC is committed to supporting diversity and inclusion through its annual purchases of goods and services from minority and women-owned businesses. 

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