Goats and Soda

Are we doing better on child hunger? A sweeping UNICEF report weighs in

A UNICEF report reveals more than 180 million children aren’t getting anywhere near the nutrition they need. The problem is so severe, the report says, these kids suffer from the devastating effects of malnutrition. Some countries, however, have shown that it is possible to reduce what the report calls child food poverty.

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We often hear that many children in the world aren’t getting enough to eat. But what does that mean exactly and what does ‘not enough’ look like?

In parts of East Africa, it means babies are fed some breast milk and a porridge made of maize. In Yemen, a paste with just flour and water. And in conflict areas like Gaza, raw lemon and weeds.

A new report by UNICEF has pulled together these details and other data from 137 low and middle income countries to understand what young children are being fed and what that means for their growth, as well as the state of child development around the world.

And the results are alarming:

One in four children under the age of five are experiencing what study authors call “severe food poverty” which means kids are only being fed two or less food groups per day.

“It amounts to 181 million children who are deprived of the diets they need to survive,” says Harriet Torlesse, a nutrition specialist at UNICEF and the lead author on the report. “If you think about these diets, they really don’t contain the range of vitamins and minerals and proteins that children need to grow and develop. “

Nutrition experts told NPR the numbers in the UNICEF report show the world is not making progress in tackling malnutrition and hunger. The covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation and localized conflicts all added to food supply disruptions as well as an increase in food prices.

The report also highlights some good news: that several low-income countries have figured out how to get more and better food to children under 5.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

It’s not only that kids aren’t eating enough food, it’s that they’re eating the wrong foods

Richmond Aryeetey, Professor of nutrition and head of the department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the University of Ghana in Accra, describes the access to nutritious food across Africa as twofold:

“There are those who are not getting enough who would fall into the full poverty criteria. And then there are also those who potentially have the opportunity to get enough but are being fed unhealthy food.”

Experts say aggressive advertising of snacks and sugary beverages that often target children play a big role, and low-income countries have a harder time regulating those industries.

“One of the features of these snack foods is that they’re often really cheap and they fill you up. And so, people are inclined to buy them,” says Deanna Olney, the Director of the Nutrition, Diets, and Health Unit at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“But if they were more expensive because of taxes, you know, then maybe they’d be less inclined to choose those for their children, ” Olney says.

The abundance of ultra-processed foods is also a likely contributor to increasing rates of overweight and obesity in among children. Olney says that’s an issue that needs more attention.

In Gaza, extreme numbers underscore how conflict creates acute hunger for children

While conflict is not the biggest driver of child hunger across the globe, it does cause some of the worst cases, such as in Sudan, Somalia and Gaza.

Palestinian children who took refuge in Quds school wait in line to receive food distributed by charity organizations for their families in Rafah, Gaza on April 01, 2024.

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Data collected by UNICEF shows that since this past December, 9 out of 10 children in Gaza have experienced severe food insecurity.

“Children in Gaza at this point in time are barely eating any nutritious foods at all,” says Harriet Torlesse with UNICEF. “Before the war in Gaza, only 13% of children were living in severe food poverty.”

Experts say that since technological advances have made it possible to more accurately measure food intake in conflict zones, Gaza has experienced the highest rate of severe malnutrition documented.

Severe child food poverty is driving high rates of wasting and stunted growth

The stakes are high for the large numbers of children living in severe food poverty with far-reaching implications for overall global development.

UNICEF’s analysis shows these children are 50% more likely to suffer from wasting, when a child is too thin for their height, which is a sign of life-threatening malnutrition. More than 13 million children under 5 are suffering from the extreme form of this condition.

“We know that these children don’t do well at school. They earn less income as adults, and they struggle to escape from income poverty. So not only do they suffer throughout the course of their life, their children, too, are likely to suffer from malnutrition,” says Harriet Torlesse.

A child is checked for malnutrition by a health worker at Kahda IDP camp near Mogadishu, Somalia. Most young kids arrive with severe malnutrition, and some die. Thousands of people have fled her home due to a long drought and armed conflict in the region

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Malnutrition prevents children from reaching their full potential by not only stunting physical growth, but brain development as well. Even if they make it to adulthood their ability to fully contribute to their community and to the productivity of their country is limited compared to children who have had access to nutritious food.

“In 2016, there was a study that was commissioned to look at the cost of hunger in Ghana,” says Richmond Aryeetey. “The estimate was that Ghana was losing close to about $6.4 million annually because of children who are not being fed adequately. That’s a lot of money being lost because we are not feeding our children well.”

The good news? There are solutions

Several low-income countries, such as Nepal and Burkina Faso, have managed to cut the rate of severe child food poverty in half. Rwanda has done so by a third. Experts say they all have several common factors that have led to success.

“The first being they’ve all made a real, deliberate effort to improve the supply of local nutritious foods. Be it pulses or vegetables or poultry,” says Harriet Torlesse. The less a country is reliant on imports for food, nutrition experts say, the better their chances of minimizing hunger.

Other countries are taking on the influx of ultra processed foods. In Peru for example, the government introduced legislation that processed foods and beverages must carry a warning label listing sugar, fat and salt content and they put a 25% tax on high sugar drinks.

“And we’ve seen in Nepal how a nationwide cash grant to poor families has increased their purchase of nutritious foods such as meat and pulses,” Torlesse says. “And then there’s been a real effort within the health system to reach families with essential counseling and support so that caregivers know how best to feed their children using locally available, nutritious foods.”

Still, there needs to be a better broader approach to tackling child hunger, according to Richmond Aryeetey, “…we are sending people to the moon. We are doing all kinds of technologically advanced stuff, and yet we are not able to feed children. It’s really a shame.”