An estimated 1.9 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2019, accounting for the majority of the 3.1 billion people in this category globally, according to a report by four United Nations agencies.
The report also warns that the number of people struggling to regularly eat healthy food such as fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-rich staples has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, due to economic disruptions and faltering food systems.
As people lose jobs and food prices increase, communities throughout the world have been unable to afford the basic building blocks of a healthy diet, according to the report.
“Although the magnitude of the deterioration is not known, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic contraction has undoubtedly worsened food security and nutrition through its impacts on the overall economy, food systems, health systems, WASH [water and sanitation] systems, and education systems,” the report says.
“Social protection has responded and played an important role in mitigating the damage, but the response has not fully compensated for all the problems,” the report adds. “It is now essential to take action, as only 10 years remain to address these challenges and bring about needed change for the most vulnerable populations.”
The report notes that just over 350 million people in Asia and the Pacific are undernourished, and 31.5 million children in the region are stunted — meaning that their growth and development has been impaired by poor nutrition. These figures represent the most extreme outcomes of the regional food crisis, which is connected to a broader web of injustice and poverty.
The chief barrier to a healthy diet in the region is cost. As a result, people end up buying food that provides enough calories for them to survive, but not enough nutrients for them to thrive.
The average daily cost of an “energy-sufficient” diet per person is 96 cents across 26 countries in Asia and the Pacific. A “nutrient-adequate” diet costs an average of $2.34 per person per day; while a “healthy diet” costs an average of $4.15 per person per day.
“In many countries, the poor would have to use most or all of their total income in order to acquire adequate quantities of essential nutrients and a diversity of nutritious food groups,” the report says. “And for a number of countries, even this amount would not be enough. In such situations, affordability imposes an insurmountable obstacle to eating a healthy diet.”
There are multiple reasons why nutrient dense and diverse foods are too expensive for nearly 2 billion people throughout the region.
The report says that food systems disincentivize the production of fruits, vegetables, and protein-rich foods, according to the report. Governments can remedy this by extending loans and grants to farmers, providing technical assistance, and helping them access the most climate-resilient and profitable crops. Organizations like the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) work with governments to realize these goals and improve food systems.
Similarly, supply chains in the region skew capital-intensive rather than small and local, crowding out small farmers who would be able to sell nutritious foods to community members. These corporate supply chains also funnel crops to manufacturers that make packaged, processed, and cheap products.
Food manufacturers are beginning to adapt, however, providing more organic and fortified products and also making fruits and vegetables more accessible.
There’s also the problem of marketing that targets children and influences their preferences. The report urges governments to curb the excessive amount of food marketing aimed at children.
The most urgent problem, however, is widespread poverty. The report says that countries in the region fail to sufficiently invest in social welfare systems. As a result, people who receive low wages are unable to afford quality food, health care, housing, and water and sanitation.
This situation has gotten worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic, too.
The amount of people facing starvation doubled over the course of 2020, according to the World Food Program. Hundreds of millions of more people could fall deeper into poverty as a result of the crisis. Low-income countries also face looming debt obligations that could hamper their economic recovery plans.
Governments have to begin investing in people by subsidizing food, health care, housing, and schools, and enacting better labor laws, according to the report. Overcoming the pandemic and its related crises will ultimately require international cooperation and massive investments at the community level.
The report notes that two immediate ways countries can reduce malnutrition and undernutrition is by expanding school meal programs, and providing access to nutritious food to mothers and children under the age of five. Improving maternal and early childhood nutrition would greatly reduce stunting and wasting, debilitating health outcomes that can affect a person for life. If students are given healthy meals during the day, meanwhile, it will improve their overall health and allow them to do better in school.
Taken together, these interventions can have positive effects throughout a community and lead to long-term welfare, especially if schools contract with local farmers and food producers.