10 June 2020

COVID-19 And Higher Education: Addressing Food Insecurity through Community Engagement, Policy Support and Research

UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion students in 165 countries are out of school due to COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the global academic community to explore new ways of teaching and learning, including distance and online education. This has proven challenging for both students and educators, who have to deal with the emotional, physical and economic difficulties posed by the illness while doing their part to help curb the spread of the virus.  The future is uncertain for everyone, particularly for millions of students scheduled to graduate this year who will face a world crippled economically by the pandemic. 

In the COVID-19 and Higher Education series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) talks to students, educators and researchers in different parts of the world to find out how COVID-19 has affected them and how they are coping with the changes. The series also highlights lessons learned and potential positive outcomes of the global lockdown for higher education.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the lives of millions of people around the world. This threat is not one of health alone, but the knock-on effects of the response to the crisis. Many countries have implemented severe measures to counter the effects of the pandemic. The University of Pretoria (UP), a UNAI member in South Africa serving as the UNAI SDG Hub for Goal 2: Zero Hunger, realizes that Africa’s unique context requires carefully thought out responses to prevent loss of life.

Hunger continues to plague many African communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen the situation. UP’s efforts to support the national response to the crisis have been multidimensional. The university’s Unit for Community Engagement are carrying out programs that support students from disadvantaged communities through an assessment of their nutritional needs and providing food supplies to enable them to continue their learning online without the added burden of food insecurity.

The Center for the Study of Resilience offers parents support using various multimedia tools. What started as a study to explore the critical role of schools as sites for social change has evolved into a platform for sharing physical, mental and health coping strategies during the this period of disruption, and providing information about affordable, healthy food options given the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Through its Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development, the university offers support to policymakers with a focus on children’s nutrition, with an emphasis on ensuring that children have the nourishment to maintain healthy growth and development, despite the current circumstances. The university has also addressed the need to monitor the impact of the pandemic on food security and to expedite the governmental response to the increase in hunger and pervasive malnutrition.

A group of researchers from UP’s Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, the ARUA Centre of Excellence in Food Security and the Faculty of Health Sciences, warned that the pandemic “is causing further pressure on vulnerable households facing temporary or permanent employment interruptions.”  Their study made several recommendations on how to effectively improve the nutrient quality of the food parcels that have been distributed in South Africa to families in need.

Finally, another study lobbied for support to informal food traders who provide food for 70% of people living in townships and informal settlements. A lack of support for these vendors so they can continue to supply food to communities could lead to a situation where there is “less fresh produce consumption and will likely lead to increased cases of food and nutrition insecurity.”

You can learn more about the work of the University of Pretoria here and about the UNAI SDG Hubs here.

List of resources:

  • FAO Policy Briefs on the pandemic’s impact on food trade, food supply chains and markets as well as on people’s lives, livelihoods and nutrition.
  • Joint Statement by FAO/IFAD/World Bank/WFP on COVID-19 impacts on food security and nutrition
  • Statement of the President of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly about the impact of COVID-19 on global food security and nutrition
  • UN COVID-19 site
  • UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition resource list on Food Systems and Nutrition responses
  • WFP Report “COVID-19: Economic and Health Impacts on Regional Food and Nutrition Security”