COVID-related spikes in household food insecurity and poverty could have a significant impact on children’s short and long-term development
The Nobel committee recently awarded the UN’s World Food Programme its annual peace prize for its efforts to combat hunger, amid a strong call to the international community to support the UN in ensuring people do not starve as a result of the global impact of the virus. As we continue to tackle new cases of coronavirus, this prize is a grim reminder of the short- and long-term health, social and economic consequences of the pandemic for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.
Understanding the consequences of likely spikes in household food insecurity – where a family has limited or unreliable access to enough nutritious food – is of the utmost concern, especially in this time of global crisis. Many communities in the Global South are extremely vulnerable to large economic shocks, such as the coronavirus, due to poverty, long-term conflict, food and water shortages, and crowded living conditions.
Children are particularly at risk as their health and educational development can suffer critical impairment. With schools closed around the world, more than 368 million children in 199 countries no longer receive school meals, which for many would have been their only nutritious meal. But robust data about how the pandemic is affecting children’s learning, health and food security in lower-income countries is scarce.
Together with a multidisciplinary team of researchers in Ghana and the US, we are working to fill this gap by investigating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on children’s education and broader development in Ghana. Funded by UK Research & Innovation through the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund, the project examines how the coronavirus has undermined children’s development through school closures, unequal access to remote learning activities, lack of access to food and healthcare and the impact of economic hardship.
The study will be conducted through phone interviews with children aged 10 to 12, along with their parents and teachers. We have followed this sample since pre-school, collecting detailed information about the children’s family and school backgrounds, their learning, socio-emotional development and health.
Food insecurity in Ghana
Ghana, a lower-middle income country in West Africa, is a good setting for studying the impact of the pandemic on children as it shares many of the challenges of other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite having recently experienced rapid economic growth, nearly 25 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, and as many as 1.2 million Ghanaians are classified as food insecure. In addition, two million people are considered as extremely vulnerable to hunger and one-quarter of children under-five are chronically malnourished. According to World Bank estimates, Ghana’s Human Capital Index is 0.44, meaning a child born today can only be expected to reach 44 per cent of their potential.
Studies show children experiencing food insecurity at home are more likely to display signs of stress, fatigue and anxiety which in turn may decrease the quality of their interactions with parents, siblings, teachers and peers. In addition, food-insecure caregivers are more likely to experience increased levels of stress and anxiety. They may also have less time to interact with children to provide the nurturing care environment that is critical for early child development and the forming of life skills. In our recent study, we found that even short spells of food insecurity at home decrease children’s learning outcomes years later, as well as lower short-term memory and self-regulation skills.
Prior to the pandemic, Ghana implemented school feeding programmes, where some government schools provided free school meals for children in kindergarten and primary school. This improved academic skills, school attendance and nutrition, especially for the most vulnerable groups, i.e. girls, children from the poorest households, and children from the Northern regions of Ghana (the country’s most food insecure area). This not only suggests food insecurity at home plays a critical role in children’s school attendance and overall performance, but also that school meals serve as an important safety net for vulnerable children by supporting their health and educational outcomes.
Public policy for 2021
With schools now closed until next year, and the discontinuation of the government’s free school meals programme, there is strong concern that pandemic-related spikes in household food insecurity and poverty will have a significant impact on children’s short and long-term development and widen inequalities for the most vulnerable children.
This project will provide the Ghanaian government with much-needed data to inform public policy not only for Ghana, but the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa in the wake of the pandemic. Through sound evidence on children’s and their families’ experiences of the crisis, it will be possible to design multi-sectoral programmes that are critical to support the multi-dimensional risks children in lower-middle income countries face, especially during the pandemic. As the World Ford Programme earlier this year warned that the world was at risk of widespread famines of “biblical proportions” as a result of the pandemic, this project is as timely as it is urgent.