COVID-19 is closing schools, but the World Food Programme is using data to make sure kids still get meals

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COVID-19 has upended communities and individuals’ lives across the world. While the focus is now on flattening the curve of the disease and keeping people healthy, it’s also important to understand the many other impacts of the virus. For the World Food Programme (WFP), the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest hunger-relief agency, program leaders immediately knew that the pandemic would pose a challenge to their programs—specifically, to schoolchildren’s access to food. Through the WFP School Meals Programme, the agency delivers daily meals to over 16 million kids in more than 60 countries. With COVID-19 causing schools across the world to close, the agency set out to understand the impact this would have on their programs and their ability to serve schoolchildren—strategizing ways to continue to reach them.

WFP has released a dashboard that is updated daily, built with Tableau, that shows where schools have closed and how many children are missing out on meals as a result. The visualization, says Carmen Burbano, director of the WFP School Meals Programme, is designed to be as clear as possible so policymakers and leaders around the world can understand the severity of the situation—and respond quickly to mitigate it. We talked with Burbano to learn more about the use of data during COVID-19 and how the agency is responding nimbly to continue reaching children in need during the crisis.

Tableau: Can you tell us about the data that you're working with to maintain the visualization you’ve created?

Carmen Burbano: The World Food Program has maintained a database since 2012 of children receiving school meals around the world. We’ve been updating that every so often. So when the crisis started, it was relatively easy for us to connect the data we have with the information coming out of UNESCO about the number of countries that were closing school systems. [We used this data] to come up with an estimate of how many children were now affected because they were not receiving the meals. That’s how we have been tracking the numbers.

Right now, the total number of schoolchildren currently out of school because of closures is around 1.6 billion. We estimate right now that around 370 million of those children are also missing out on meals. We're particularly concerned with those kids because out of all the children who are currently affected by school closures, these are the poorest. School meals are generally directed toward very vulnerable children: those who come from poor families, or have a disability, or another challenge. These are the kids who depend on school not just for learning, but for eating.

Tableau: How does data inform the work that you do?

Burbano: Data is incredibly important because it allows us to identify the magnitude of the problem. It has allowed us to establish, for example, the huge numbers of children who are affected by the school closures. But also within our own operations, it lets us see where we need to focus our attention and our investments. As we move forward, we will continue to get data on how many children are getting support through the alternative programs we’ve developed. While in the first stage of the crisis, we have identified the problem. We might also be able to identify the solutions that work and provide ways of visualizing them [to be able to] communicate out to countries and to donors that want to support our efforts. We need to be able to show: What is the problem? What are we doing about it? So it's really important for us operationally, but also for us to be able to communicate this data to the world.

Tableau: What are those alternatives to school meals you mentioned that WFP has developed to continue serving children through this crisis?

Burbano: As soon as the crisis started, we started to see that we would have to repurpose our programs to make sure that those children continue to receive food—even though they're not in school physically. So we’ve been working all across the world, in the different countries we serve, to see how we can modify the programs.

In most cases, the solution that has been popping up—and it took us a little bit of time to figure out—is that most of the countries are now providing what we call “take home rations.” So instead of the kids getting meals in school, which are no longer an option, they’re getting them in the form of packages lasting for a month or a couple of weeks. In some countries, like in Honduras or in Libya, this has been organized with the help of teachers. hey’re delivering meals to the childrens’ homes. Teachers normally know where students live and have connections to the community. In other places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda, the schools are being used as a distribution point, where parents come to pick up the meals at a particular time, so there aren’t too many people [gathering] at any one time.

Tableau: With this pandemic, there’s such a strong focus—obviously—on health. But what does your work show about the other ways the virus is affecting people?

Burbano: We’ve really seen, with this crisis, the importance of social programs and safety nets: school feeding, insurance programs, employment benefits, and more. One of the things that was quite evident once schools started to close was that when the largest safety net in the world—school meals—is no longer there, there is a massive impact. It impacts not only kids, but their whole families. What we’ve been seeing is that the children themselves are missing out on nutrition, and that’s a huge problem. We also need to remember that in this crisis, we have enormous amounts of families who are now struggling with multiple problems: They might have lost their jobs or they can’t pay rent. These are families who were already having problems making ends meet and putting food on the table. With our calculations, we’ve estimated that the loss of school meals adds around 10% of an increased cost burden on a family.

There is obviously a need to make sure that we're controlling the spread of the virus, but there are also other consequences that we need to be thinking about. Some of the populations that are really being affected at this moment are schoolchildren, and some of them will never recover. Children from the poorest families will lose years of schooling, and in some cases, they will never come back to school. Girls in particular may not be able to go back and may be married off early instead. There are huge [effects] in terms of social costs that this pandemic is creating, that we're now grappling with.

Through the COVID-19 Data Resource Hub, Tableau is sharing stories on the ways that data and analytics inform responses to the coronavirus outbreak. Read these stories here.

Learn more about the work done by the World Food Programme here.

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