Children under the age of two are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm, according to a new report released by UNICEF.
The report “Fed to Fail? The crisis of children’s diets in early life” released ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit this week – warns that rising poverty, conflict, inequality. climate-related disasters and health emergencies are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore noted: “the report’s findings are clear: When the stakes are highest, millions of young children are being fed to fail. Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can irreversibly harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their schooling, job prospects and futures. 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. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions could make the situation much worse.”
CHILDREN NOT FED ENOUGH OF THE RIGHT FOODS
At present 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. The low consumption of nutritious foods is especially troubling: about half of children are missing the lifelong benefits of the most nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables (41 per cent) and eggs. fish and meat (55 per cent).
CHILDREN’S DIETS SEEN LITTLE OR NO IMPROVEMENT
In 50 countries with trend data, the report says that the percentage of children consuming a minimally diverse diet remained low. It remained 21 per cent in 2010 and 24 per cent in 2020. Only 21 of these countries saw statistically significant improvements in the diversity of children’s diets. Further millions of families have struggled to feed their children nutritious and diverse diets during the COVID-19 pandemic due to lost income and reduced household purchasing of nutritious foods.
The report finds that COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drives more families into poverty. It mentions that a survey conducted among urban households in Jakarta found that half of families 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.
CARRYING THE SCAR
UNICEF says that children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat needed to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and potentially, death. It points out that children under two years of age are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition such as wasting, stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity. As per estimates, more than half of children under the age of 5 with wasting ( around 23 million children) are younger than 2 years of age. 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.
According to the report, children aged 6-23 months living in rural areas or from poorer households are significantly more likely to be fed poor diets compared to their urban or wealthier peers.
- Increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods – by incentivizing their production, distribution and retailing
- Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families
- Increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information
- Deliver dietary supplements, home fortificants and fortified complementary foods to young children at risk of micronutrient deficiencies, anaemia and growth and development failure.