Today is World Food Day, and this year in particular we should reflect deeply on its significance. While it is widely known that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on health, income and employment, the impact on children’s nutrition is less well known. That impact is deep, as families under financial pressure often struggle to feed their children well.
In a country like Cambodia, where malnutrition rates remain high, Covid-19’s impact will aggravate an already serious situation. The World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF have therefore come together to shine a light on this issue, then turn that light towards a way forward.
Good nutrition is not just a matter of survival; it’s also crucial for physical growth and brain development, enabling children to concentrate, learn, and become healthy and productive adults. When you add poor nutrition to missed education caused by school closures, you have a double threat to children’s learning, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable.
The recent reopening of schools offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine and improve education, while simultaneously strengthening nutrition within the school gates. When learning and nutrition are both improved, we will be able to take enormous strides forward in education, creating a brighter future for children and Cambodia itself.
The Cambodian government, WFP and UNICEF have already seen extraordinary results working together to provide free meals and nutrition education to students in 1,113 schools. Studies have shown that nutritious meals increase students’ concentration spans and help them study more effectively, contributing to better educational outcomes.
Providing children with diverse, nutrient-rich foods through free school meals also motivates families to send and keep their children in school while easing their economic burden. Nutrition education, meanwhile, helps children develop healthy dietary practices that build immunity and accelerate recovery from illnesses, including viruses like Covid-19.
The reopening of schools can be the starting point for these initiatives to be expanded under the leadership of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the Ministry of Health. We call for a comprehensive approach to improving school nutrition, starting at the crucial primary and pre-school levels.
This should include the resumption and expansion of school meals, nutrition education, micronutrient supplementation, screening and referral of malnourished children, and the creation of safer and healthier school environments. All these initiatives benefit and enhance the learning and health of children.
As a first step, establishing clear guidelines on food safety and precautionary measures in the preparation, serving and consumption of food can allow schools that provide free nutritious meals to resume their provision as soon as possible. This will allow families to continue to reap the multiple benefits of these programmes.
Secondly, schools can strengthen existing health systems by reaching children and families with information and services, delivered through teachers or school and community organisations such as School Support Committees. Those involved in Cambodian education can help develop guidelines for crucial interventions including the early detection and referral of those children at risk of malnutrition, deworming, and micronutrient supplementation.
Thirdly, schools can help children develop nutrition literacy and positive behaviours that can last throughout their lives. The promotion of healthy eating alongside good hygiene and sanitation practices should be integrated into primary and pre-school curriculums, as well as communicated to teachers, parents and wider community members.
Finally, we know that school environments greatly influence children’s eating habits. Stronger regulation of the marketing and sale of unhealthy foods around schools is needed, alongside the active promotion of healthy, affordable alternatives.
Today, the WFP and UNICEF renew our commitment to supporting the Cambodian government in its efforts to improve the education and nutrition of all children. We have joined the global SaveOurFuture campaign, created to assist governments worldwide in reopening schools safely and with improved nutrition.
Cambodia’s unique situation, with its young population and high number of school-age children, calls for special attention and investment by all the development partners. All 3.2 million of these children deserve high quality education and nutrition. Today, on World Food Day, we pledge to work together so that they are not let down – the opportunity of this moment must not be lost.
Claire Conan is WFP Representative. Foroogh Foyouzat is UNICEF Representative.