UNICEF Report: 181 Million Children Suffer from Severe Food Poverty Amid Global Crises

Featured & Cover UNICEF Report 181 Million Children Suffer from Severe Food Poverty Amid Global Crises

Many children worldwide are not getting enough to eat, but what does “not enough” look like? In East Africa, it means babies receive a mix of breast milk and maize porridge. In Yemen, it’s a paste made of flour and water. In conflict zones like Gaza, children might eat raw lemon and weeds.

A new UNICEF report examines what children in 137 low- and middle-income countries are being fed and its impact on their growth and development. The findings are alarming: one in four children under five experience “severe food poverty,” meaning they consume two or fewer food groups daily. “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 of 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, in discussions with NPR, highlighted that the world is not progressing in combating malnutrition and hunger. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation, and localized conflicts have exacerbated food supply disruptions and increased food prices.

However, the report also notes some positive developments, showing that several low-income countries have made strides in providing better nutrition to children under five. Here are four key takeaways from the report:

  1. Not Just About Quantity, But Quality of Food

Richmond Aryeetey, a professor of nutrition at the University of Ghana, explains that the issue is 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.” Aggressive marketing of snacks and sugary beverages, particularly targeting children, plays a significant role in this. In low-income countries, regulating these industries is more challenging. Deanna Olney, Director of the Nutrition, Diets, and Health Unit at the International Food Policy Research Institute, adds, “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. But if they were more expensive because of taxes, you know, then maybe they’d be less inclined to choose those for their children.”

The prevalence of ultra-processed foods contributes to rising rates of overweight and obesity among children, an issue needing more attention.

  1. Conflict Zones and Acute Child Hunger

While conflict is not the primary driver of child hunger globally, it leads to some of the worst cases, notably in Sudan, Somalia, and Gaza. UNICEF’s data shows that since December, 9 out of 10 children in Gaza have faced severe food insecurity. Harriet Torlesse remarks, “Children in Gaza at this point in time are barely eating any nutritious foods at all. Before the war in Gaza, only 13% of children were living in severe food poverty.”

Technological advances have improved the measurement of food intake in conflict zones, and Gaza currently has the highest documented rate of severe malnutrition.

  1. Severe Food Poverty’s Impact on Child Development

Children living in severe food poverty are significantly more likely to suffer from wasting, where a child is too thin for their height, indicative of life-threatening malnutrition. Over 13 million children under five are affected by this extreme condition. Torlesse notes, “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.”

Malnutrition stunts not only physical growth but also brain development, limiting a child’s ability to fully contribute to their community and country later in life. Richmond Aryeetey highlights the economic impact with a study from 2016: “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.”

  1. Effective Solutions and Success Stories

There is hope, as several low-income countries have successfully reduced severe child food poverty. Nepal and Burkina Faso have halved their rates, and Rwanda has achieved a one-third reduction. These countries share common strategies leading 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 Torlesse. Reducing dependency on imported food is crucial for minimizing hunger.

Other countries are combating ultra-processed foods. In Peru, legislation mandates that processed foods and beverages carry warning labels listing sugar, fat, and salt content, and a 25% tax on high-sugar drinks has been introduced.

Nepal’s nationwide cash grants to poor families have increased the purchase of nutritious foods like meat and pulses. Additionally, efforts within health systems have provided essential counseling and support, helping caregivers feed their children with locally available, nutritious foods.

Richmond Aryeetey underscores the need for a more comprehensive approach to tackling child hunger: “…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.”

While severe food poverty remains a critical issue affecting millions of children globally, targeted efforts in improving local food supply and regulating unhealthy food options have shown promising results. A concerted global effort is needed to ensure that every child has access to the nutritious food they need to grow and thrive.

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