Social Issues

Panama food-security plan reaches thousands of kids despite school closures

Panama City, Mar 16 (efe-epa).- Panamanian schools shifted to a distance-learning model last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and instruction is still being provided remotely at the start of 2021.

That situation has posed a challenge in terms of providing healthy meals to disadvantaged youth, but a recently launched school-nutrition program has been adapted to overcome that obstacle and reach thousands of needy households.

“Face-to-face activities were suspended due to the pandemic-triggered school closures, and one of the main concerns was that all the machinery of the ‘Study Without Hunger’ program” needed to continue, Israel Rios, nutrition officer for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said in an interview with Efe.

Panama, whose school-aged population numbers nearly 900,000, according to Education Ministry figures, has kept schools closed for a longer period of time than any other Latin American country amid the Covid-19 emergency.

The Health Ministry says that it is evaluating the possibility of shifting to a blended learning approach (a hybrid of distance learning and in-person classes) starting midyear, although that will depend on the evolution of the pandemic in Panama, a nation of 4.2 million inhabitants that thus far has reported roughly 350,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and just over 6,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19.

The onset of the coronavirus crisis brought widespread disruption to Panamanian life and also interrupted the launch of the country’s Study Without Hunger school-nutrition program, whose pilot phase was rolled out in early 2020.

That initiative had to be adapted and linked to the government’s Panama Solidarity program, which has provided food bags and vouchers to hundreds of thousands of families left without livelihoods due to the pandemic.

“The Education Ministry … transferred cereals, grains, rice, etc. In the schools (affiliated with the Study Without Hunger) program, bags were prepared using food from their storerooms and distributed to families with children,” Rios said.

The senior FAO official said Study Without Hunger’s pilot program was launched with the aim of benefiting 3,500 children, while during the 2020-2024 period the objective is to reach nearly 1,800 of Panama’s just over 3,000 schools.

But the program, which is receiving technical assistance from the FAO, also faces a series of challenges, the most important of which is the acquisition of food through a decentralized purchasing model capable of overcoming poverty.

Fighting childhood hunger is a pressing problem in that Central American country, where the rate of chronic malnutrition – a scourge that stunts children’s growth – exceeds 40 percent in some indigenous regions and other economically deprived areas, according to a 2020 report by the FAO. EFE-EPA


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