No improvement in young children’s diets – UNICEF

No improvement in young children’s diets – UNICEF

  • says situation ‘could get much worse’ under COVID-19

Children under the age of 2 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 today.

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, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.

“The findings of the report are clear: millions of young children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development,” said Rushnan Murtaza, UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative.

“Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures. Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria.”

In an analysis of 91 countries, including Nigeria, the UNICEF report finds that half of children aged 6-23 months globally are not being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day. Two-thirds do not consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.

According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, in Nigeria, among children aged 6-23 months, only 23 percent have the minimum necessary dietary diversity, and only 42 percent have minimum adequate meal frequency.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drive more families into poverty, the report finds that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children. According to a study  conducted in Nigeria last year, Nigerians were already largely unable to afford healthy diets due to pre-existing food security challenges, with an estimated 40.1 percent of Nigerians unable to cater for their food expenditure. It is likely that this will only be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.

Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting (low weight for height), micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity – as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.

Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of 5 with wasting – around 23 million children – are younger than 2 years of age, while 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. 

In Nigeria, one out of every three children is stunted and one of every ten children is wasted. As a result, close to 17 million Nigerian children are undernourished (stunted and/or wasted), giving Nigeria the highest burden of malnutrition in Africa and the second highest in the world.

Nigeria is off track to achieve SDG2: Zero Hunger by 2030. To change this trajectory, the time to act is now to reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems.

To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child year-round, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by:

  • 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.

“We have reached a crucial tipping point,” said RushnanMurtaza. “Only by joining hands with partners, government and relevant stakeholders, can we transform the Nigerian food system and provide access to diverse, nutritious, safe and affordable diets for every Nigerian child. The upcomingFood Systems Summit provides us the opportunity to reimagine food systems that create a fundamental shift from feeding people to nourishing them. We must apply these learnings to Nigeria, so that we can secure a healthy future for our children.”

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