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1 in 4 children lack nutrition due to climate change, inequity: Study

UNICEF's "Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood" report reveals 181 million children under 5 face severe food poverty, primarily consuming only two food groups daily.

By Ground report
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1 in 4 Kids lack nutrition due to climate change, inequity: Reports

Mother preparing food against crying girl and baby indoors. Photo credit: Quang Nguyen Vinh/pexels

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The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has released a troubling report that highlights a crisis impacting the health and futures of millions of young children worldwide due to growing inequities, conflict, and climate crises. The "Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood" report reveals that 181 million children under 5 are victims of severe food poverty.

One-fourth children lack proper nutrition

About 1 in 4 young children globally aren't getting enough of the right foods and nutrients their growing bodies and developing minds need. Their diets lack variety and nutritional value. Growing inequities, conflict, climate crises, rising food prices, an overabundance of unhealthy foods, harmful food marketing strategies, and poor child feeding practices are major contributing factors condemning millions to this child food poverty.

The report defines severe child food poverty as when a child under 5 consumes foods from only 2 or fewer of the 8 main internationally recognized food groups each day. So, these young children mainly eat starchy staple foods like rice, corn, bread, or potatoes, along with some milk or yogurt, but miss out on crucial nutrients from protein sources like meat, fish, eggs, as well as fruits and vegetables.

The Executive Director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, explained the dire situation, saying "Children who consume just two food groups per day – for example, rice and some milk – are up to 50 percent more likely to experience severe malnutrition." It causes extreme thinness and emaciation, which can be fatal for young bodies.

Russell says the impacts will still be profoundly negative even if a severely malnourished child survives into adulthood: "They don't thrive. So they do less well at school. As adults, they find it harder to earn a decent income, perpetuating the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next."

Victor Torlesse, a nutrition expert at UNICEF, emphasized the damage of a diet lacking variety, especially in early childhood. "The brain, heart, and immune system, crucial for development and disease protection, depend on vitamins, minerals, and protein."

The report found that 65% of the 181 million children facing severe food poverty live in 20 countries. The situation is dire in Somalia (63%), Guinea (54%), Guinea-Bissau (53%), and Afghanistan (49%).

: Percentage of children living in severe child food poverty, by country
: Percentage of children living in severe child food poverty, by country. Photo credit: UNICEF global databases, 2023

India leads in severe child malnutrition

India has the most children under 5 suffering from severe food poverty at about 64 million, while Sub-Saharan Africa has 59 million impacted children. According to the data, 76% of Indian children face this nutritional crisis.

The impacts are being intensely felt in conflict-affected areas. The report notes the "appalling escalation" in the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza from recent military offenses. Data collected by UNICEF from December to April via text messages to families receiving aid showed about 9 out of 10 children were living in severe food poverty there. While not fully representative, it indicates a massive spike from 2020 levels when only 13% of children in Gaza faced severe nutritional deficiencies.

While comprehensive data is lacking, the report suggests that children from low-income households likely suffer from nutritional gaps and lack of dietary variety due to rising costs for healthy foods and aggressive marketing of unhealthy, ultra-processed items, even in wealthier nations.

Torlesse criticized food companies for pushing unhealthy products. He said, "These foods are cheap but high in calories, salt, and fat. They fill stomachs but lack essential vitamins and minerals for children." He added that sugary and salty processed foods create taste habits that lead to obesity and nutritional deficiencies.

Affluent families also face malnutrition

The report found that 46% of severe child food poverty is in low-income families. But 54% - nearly 98 million children - are from affluent households. Their issue is unhealthy diets with lots of junk and processed foods crowding out nutritious options.

This shows how the crisis of poor diets for young children spans socioeconomic levels. Poverty is a major factor for tens of millions, but nutrient-poor, calorie-heavy processed foods are causing problems in higher income brackets too.

Lack of focus on young children's diets, inadequate childhood nutrition education, and limited access to affordable healthy food are cited as underlying reasons.

Beyond the individual impacts of malnutrition, which stunt physical and mental development, experts warn of a larger societal cost. Torlesse pointed out that "When they're adults, they find it harder to earn a decent income, and that continues the cycle of poverty."

While the data reveals a concerning crisis, the report highlights bright spots and reasons for hope that severe nutritional deficiencies among young children can be mitigated when made a true priority.

Percentage of children consuming food groups, by type and child food poverty status, 2022
Percentage of children consuming food groups, by type and child food poverty status, 2022. Photo credit: UNICEF global databases, 2023

Some countries have made major progress despite limited resources and other crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Burkina Faso is the greatest success story, with child food poverty rates dropping by 50% between 2010 and 2021, from 67% to 32%.

Nepal and Rwanda have made impressive strides, cutting their severe child food poverty numbers by about half over the past decade. They achieved this through efforts to increase availability and accessibility of nutritious foods like lentils, vegetables, eggs, and milk locally.

Focused, well-coordinated policies and programs are key to reducing poverty to increase purchasing power for healthy foods, making healthy foods more abundant and affordable through agriculture and distribution reforms, and educating parents on early childhood nutrition through community outreach.

The report states that even in the lowest-income nations facing major crises, concerted actions can give more young children a fair chance at healthy development through proper nutrition.

UNICEF urges global action against malnutrition

UNICEF is urgently calling on all nations, as well as public, private and non-profit stakeholders, to prioritize ending severe child food poverty as a key objective in line with the Sustainable Development Goals to end malnutrition worldwide.

Recommended concrete steps include strengthening healthcare systems and nutrition programs, reshaping food production and supply chains nationally and globally to increase the availability of diverse nutrient-rich foods affordably, and curtailing the marketing of unhealthy, processed foods and beverages. There are also calls for improved humanitarian aid to act quickly in crisis zones where children are most vulnerable to nutrition deprivation.

The goal is to close the dietary nutrient gap that afflicts 1 in 4 of the world's youngest citizens during the critical brain development and lifelong health establishment.

"If we are committed to helping children survive and thrive, we must urgently provide them with safer, more nutritious and affordable diets," implored UNICEF's executive director Catherine Russell. "Their health and development depend on it."

For the 181 million children under 5 facing severe nutritional deficiencies that hinder their growth and futures, Russell's plea is vital. The UNICEF report serves as an alert over a generational crisis and a call for global action to provide nutritious diets to vulnerable young populations.

According to the shocking data, the world's burden weighs heaviest on the smallest shoulders. Nourishing all children through those crucial early years of development is now one of the highest humanitarian priorities, as stated by the United Nations. The solutions will require cooperation across countries, communities and families to build a brighter future for our youngest generations, overcoming poverty, food insecurity, inadequate policies and unhealthy corporate influences.

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