UNICEF report on acute food crisis for children ought to be a wakeup call for all countries including India

Report warns that poor diets can scar children for life. Children under two are most vulnerable to various forms of malnutrition, including stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Dr Gyan Pathak

The ongoing COVID-19 disruptions could make the food crisis for children worse, especially at a time when there has been little sign of any improvement in the last ten years. They were ‘Fed to Fail?’ as the title of the new UNICEF report released ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit suggests. Only half of the world’s children aged 6-23 months are being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day, while just a third consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.

Children are not being fed enough of the right foods at the right time. Currently, 27 per cent of children aged 6-8 months are not fed solid food. Among children aged 6-23 months, 48 per cent are not fed with the minimum meal frequency, and 71 per cent do not have minimally diverse diets.

Policies and programmes to improve young children’s diets are not prioritized, and are being further eroded by the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said. It found that no country has a comprehensive set of policies, legal measures and programmes to improve young children’s diets.

Millions of families are struggling to provide their children with nutritious food to support their growth and development. They are even struggling to find and afford nutritious foods for their children. Shortage in national supplies, seasonal scarcities and poor road infrastructure constrain physical access to nutritious foods. Rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies are all contributing to the nutrition crisis, the report emphasized.

It has also been found that COVID-19 pandemic is affecting how families feed their children. According to a survey, about half of the families in many countries have been forced to reduce nutritious food purchases. As a result, the percentage of children consuming the minimum recommended number of food groups fell by a third in 2020, compared to 2018.

Children’s diets are constrained even by social, cultural, and gender barriers. Mothers remain primarily responsible for the feeding and care of young children. Yet, mother’s status in patriarchal norms and unequal power lacks autonomy to decide what food is purchased or fed to their children. There is mounting time pressure on mothers, and many turn to the convenience of processed and fast foods to feed their children.

Unhealthy processed foods and drinks are widely accessible and heavily marketed. In several countries including India, it was found that one in three children were fed at least one processed or ultra-processed food or drink daily. These products are highly available, cheap and convenient, and some are marketed with misleading nutrition claims because legislation to prevent inappropriate marketing is missing, inadequate or poorly implemented.

Children living in rural areas or from poorer households are significantly more likely to be fed poor diets, compared to their urban or wealthier peers. In 2020, for example, the proportion of children fed the minimum number of recommended food groups was twice as high in urban areas (39 per cent) than in rural areas (23 per cent), the findings revealed. Poor feeding patterns have persisted throughout the last decade, the study has found.

The report has warned that poor diets can scar children for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death. Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition, including stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity.

“The report’s findings are clear: When the stakes are highest, millions of young children are being fed to fail,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said. “While we have known this for years, there has been little progress on providing the right kind of nutritious and safe foods for the young,” she said.

UNICEF has estimated that globally, more than half of children under the age of 5 with wasting are younger than 2 years of age. This amounts to around 23 million children. The prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between 6 months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.

The report emphasized that progress in all regions is possible with investment. It found that in Latin America and the Caribbean almost two thirds (62 per cent) of children below 24 months are fed a minimally diverse diet, while in Eastern and Southern Africa (24 per cent), West and Central Africa (21 per cent) and South Asia (19 per cent), fewer than one in four young children are being fed a minimally diverse diet.

The world needs increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed food and drink while ending harmful marketing practices targeting children and families. Strengthening of communication channels with easy to understand information has also been recommended.

“Children cannot survive or thrive on calories alone,” said Fore. “Only by joining forces with governments, the private sector, civil society, development and humanitarian partners, and families can we transform food systems.”

(IPA Service)

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