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Opinion: Hunger also goes to school

By Najla Veloso, teacher and coordinator of the school feeding program of the Brazil-FAO Cooperation

The words of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, at the World Summit on Food Systems on food insecurity and global challenges, in September 2021, made me go back to the past while thinking hopefully about the future. Recalling the beginning of my professional life, I went back to 1984, when I was 18 years old and a literacy teacher in a public school in the capital of Brazil. In the class, about 35 students, mostly boys and girls between 7 to 15 years old.

Three features stand out in most: 1) sadness in their eyes, perhaps due to family reality, almost always marked by the precarious living conditions; 2) hopelessness in the future, perhaps due to lack of perspective for change; and 3) low self-esteem caused by a negative self-image.

I highlight the stories of Luan and Rosana (fictitious names), adolescents aged 13 and 14, who had already lost three years of school, as a result of the difficulties faced by their families. Their realities were hunger and unemployment, added to family health problems and unsanitary conditions in their homes. Food did not arrive at their homes regularly.

After realizing this scenario, I started requesting food supplements for both of them at the beginning of the class, because I saw in their eyes that they lacked encouragement due to the absence of food. With that, I was observing an improvement in their activities. Even so, that year we did not manage to alphabetize them. We saw them be part of the statistics and predictions that led many schoolchildren: school dropout, informality at work or even social marginalization.

For many years, I took the failure of some students as a personal defeat. But with maturity and experience I understood that it was a problem produced by the sum of several absences, one of them, healthy eating from childhood and, later, at school, which could minimally make up for nutritional deficiencies.

The images of Luan and Rosana came back to me when I listened to the Secretary General of the UN, because we have 388 million students in the world and one in two of them will not eat anything during their stay at school. And beyond knowing that more than 10 million students in Latin America and the Caribbean have and will have their only meal of the day in school meals.
Knowing that the public school is the State exercising its function of guaranteeing quality education, how have we allowed hunger in the school? How to eradicate the hunger that continues to haunt our students?

The pandemic has pushed millions into extreme poverty, closed thousands of jobs, caused schools to close, reduced learning conditions for many, and taken away quality food from those who had it. They are, paradoxically, global challenges for each and every one.

School feeding programmes, whether well structured or not, already exist in almost all countries. We have to promote them and we know that there is enough production to do it. Many Latin American countries have already shown that it is a collective and inter-institutional effort that combines the efforts of administrators, parliamentarians and civil society, public and private, students and the community. It is an issue capable of uniting politicians from different parties.

Through the Sustainable School Feeding Network (RAES), promoted by the Government of Brazil, with the support of FAO, we have worked, together with 21 countries in the region, to dialogue, exchange experiences and seek solutions to the challenges during and post-pandemic, where we also reinforce the importance of these programs to increase income for local family farming through public purchases and as a contribution to the eradication of poverty and hunger.

Within the framework of this constant work, on November 10 we are launching a virtual platform of the RAES (www.redraes.org), which facilitates and allows us to increase the exchange that we started years ago to strengthen school feeding at the regional level. To this end, the authorities of the member countries will meet in a seminar on this subject, where they will reaffirm their commitment to this policy. As Secretary General António Guterres said, “The problems we create are problems we can solve. Humanity has already shown us that we are capable of great things, when we work together”.

Content originally published in the newspaper Correio Braziliense, from Brazil, and in different media outlets in Latin America