Tackling food poverty and child nutrition

Millions of children worldwide do not have access to the nutritious and varied diets they need to thrive. This crisis, known as child food poverty, is fueled by a complex web of factors, including rising inequality, conflict, climate change and unhealthy food marketing practices. A recent UNICEF report, “Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood,” sheds light on the devastating impact of this problem and calls for urgent action from governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector.

UNICEF defines child food poverty as the inability of children to access a diet rich in essential nutrients during their first years of life. This lack of a balanced diet has a profound impact on a child’s survival, growth and cognitive development. It can weaken a child’s immune system, increasing susceptibility to infections and hindering their ability to learn and reach their full potential. Children who do not receive proper nutrition in early childhood are more likely to struggle in school, have lower future earning potential, and remain trapped in a cycle of poverty that continues across generations.

The report paints a bleak picture of the global situation. One in four children under the age of five, a staggering 181 million, suffer from severe child food poverty. This translates into millions of children missing out on the essential nutrients they need to build a healthy body and mind. While progress in ending this crisis has been slow, some regions and countries have shown that change is possible. Their success stories provide valuable insights and hope for a future where all children have access to healthy food.

The report shows that severe child food poverty affects both poor and non-poor households, indicating that income is not the only determining factor. This highlights the need for interventions that address a broader range of factors beyond economic inequality.

Children facing severe food poverty lack essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and proteins, which are crucial for healthy growth and development. This lack of important nutrients can lead to stunted growth and weaken a child’s immune system. At the same time, unhealthy processed foods become a staple of their diet, compromising their nutritional intake.

Conflict, climate shocks and the global food and nutrition crisis are exacerbating food poverty among children, especially in vulnerable countries. These factors disrupt food systems, reduce the availability of fresh produce and drive up food prices, making it even more difficult for families to afford nutritious food.

Severe childhood food poverty is a leading cause of child undernutrition, with countries with high rates of child deprivation having a threefold higher prevalence of severe childhood food poverty. Stunting, a condition in which children are too small for their age, is a key indicator of chronic undernutrition and has long-term consequences for a child’s physical and cognitive development.

The report highlights the alarming situation in Bangladesh, where two in three children under the age of five live in child food poverty. This translates to roughly 10 million children consuming diets that lack the minimum five food groups recommended for good nutrition. The consequences are dire: children in severe food poverty are 50% more likely to be wasted, a severe form of malnutrition characterized by rapid weight loss and muscle loss. This condition can be life-threatening, especially for young children.

Bangladesh is among the top 20 countries where almost two-thirds of the world’s children face severe child food poverty. The consequences of inadequate nutrition can last a lifetime, hindering children’s educational attainment and future earning potential and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. This harms individual children and hinders the overall development of the country.

The report identifies several factors contributing to the food poverty crisis among children in Bangladesh. Many families struggle to afford nutritious food, especially during economic downturns or food price inflation.

Parents may need to learn about proper feeding practices for children, including the importance of a varied diet and appropriate meal frequency for young children.

The aggressive marketing of ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks targets children and influences their food preferences. These foods are often low in nutrients and high in calories, sugar, unhealthy fats and salt, contributing to unhealthy diets and childhood obesity.

Climate change is disrupting agricultural production, leading to food insecurity and price volatility. This makes it even more difficult for families to access affordable and nutritious food. Disasters such as floods and cyclones can destroy crops and livelihoods, further aggravating the situation.

UNICEF proposes a multi-pronged approach to tackling child food poverty in Bangladesh and other countries with similar challenges. This approach requires cooperation between governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector.

Investing in health systems can provide essential nutrition services, including advice on child nutrition and early detection and treatment of malnutrition. This includes prioritizing the most vulnerable children who are most at risk of food poverty.

Building the capacity of community health and nutrition workers is critical. These frontline workers can provide parents and caregivers with timely, high-quality advice on recommended feeding practices for infants and young children.

Establishing strong policy and regulatory frameworks for the food, health and social protection sectors is essential. This includes tackling the root causes of child food poverty, such as poverty itself, and protecting children from the harmful impact of unhealthy food marketing.

Governments should take action to regulate the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children. This may include restrictions on advertising, product placement and sponsorship deals aimed at young audiences.

Strengthening social protection programs, such as cash transfers and food assistance, can help alleviate poverty and improve families’ access to nutritious food. These programs should be designed to meet the specific needs of children and their families.

Robust data collection systems are essential to effectively combat child food poverty. These systems make it possible to monitor the prevalence and severity of the problem, identify areas of greatest need, and track progress over time. Early detection of the increase in food poverty among children, especially in fragile and humanitarian contexts, is crucial for timely action.

UNICEF’s report serves as a clear call to action for the international community. Ending food poverty among children requires a global commitment and a multi-faceted approach. Governments and development partners must prioritize reducing child food poverty as a critical step toward achieving international and national nutrition and development goals. It should be recognized as a measure of success in upholding children’s food and nutrition rights.

Transforming food systems is essential to ensure that healthy, diverse and affordable food options are readily available to families with young children. This includes promoting sustainable agricultural practices, reducing food waste and encouraging the production and distribution of nutritious food. The food and beverage industry also has a role to play by complying with policies that protect children from unhealthy products being marketed.

Social protection systems play a crucial role in combating child food poverty. Governments should invest in programmes that provide financial support to families, especially those at risk. These programmes should respond to the specific needs of children and their families, and ensure access to nutritious food.

Child food poverty is a complex and multi-faceted challenge with devastating consequences for millions of children around the world. Governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector can create a future where every child has access to the nutritious food they need to thrive. Investing in solutions to tackle child food poverty is about fulfilling a basic human right and building a healthier, more equitable and prosperous future for all.

Dr. Matiur Rahman is a researcher and development worker.

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