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Pope Francis Meets World Food Program Head as Agency Warns about Child Hunger

World Food Program head David Beasley meets Pope Francis at the Vatican Jan. 28, 2021. Credit: Vatican Media.

Pope Francis met on Thursday with the head of the World Food Program, as the organization issued a warning that more than 300 million children are going hungry amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The pope met David Beasley at the Vatican on Jan. 28. The 40-minute meeting took place as the WFP and UNICEF released a joint research report on the impact of school closures on children’s nutrition.

The report said that around the world more than 39 billion in-school meals have been missed due to school closures since the start of the pandemic. 

The research found that 370 million children globally have missed an average of 40% of in-school meals since COVID-19 closed schools. Many of these children are reliant on school meals for much of their daily nutrition.

“Missing out on nutritious school meals is jeopardizing the futures of millions of the world’s poorest children. We risk losing a whole generation,” Beasley said in an article on the WFP website.

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“We must support governments to safely reopen schools and start feeding these children again. For many, the nutritious meal they get in school is the only food they will receive all day,” he said.

The World Food Program is a branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization focused on food assistance. It is headquartered in Rome and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.

Pope Francis met the WFP director in his library in the Apostolic Palace on Thursday morning. The Vatican did not provide any details about the meeting, but a WFP press release said that Beasley briefed the pope on an appeal he has made to billionaires “who have become wealthier during the COVID-19 pandemic to step up and help fund efforts to support the hungry and poor.”

Beasley also expressed to Francis his fears about looming famine in several countries. The WFP predicts that “some 270 million people will face severe hunger this year, fuelled by COVID-19, conflict, climate shocks, and other factors.”

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Pope Francis last met Beasley in November 2017. In 2016, the pope visited the WFP headquarters in Rome.

The organization’s latest report focuses on child hunger caused by school closures amid the pandemic.

According to a Jan. 28 article from the WFP, the humanitarian group, together with UNICEF, is “urging governments to prioritize schools for reopening while making sure that the health, food and nutritional needs of children are met through comprehensive, high-quality school feeding programs.”

Survey data from 68 countries before the spread of COVID-19 showed that around 50% of children aged 13 to 17 reported feelings of hunger. Further data found that in some countries, up to two-thirds of adolescents were underweight.

It is also estimated that 24 million schoolchildren are at risk of dropping out of school because of the pandemic.  

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“Despite clear evidence that schools are not primary drivers of COVID-19 infections, millions of children are facing school closures around the world,” UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta Fore said.

“Children who depend on schools for their daily meals are not only losing out on an education but also on a reliable source of nutrition,” she said.

“As we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and await vaccine distribution, we must prioritize the reopening of schools and take action to make them as safe as possible, including through renewed investments in proven infection prevention measures like clean water and soap in every school around the world.”