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OpinionFood & Hunger

Preventing Food Systems From Failing Children

Young Lives / Sarika Gulati

This opinion piece is provided by Professor Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India and member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

Of all child deaths under the age of 5, around 45% are linked to undernutrition. At the same time, we are also seeing rising rates of overweight and obesity in children from low- and middle-income countries.

This is resulting in a concurrent ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition, where some children lack enough calories or micronutrients leading to stunting and chronic disease, while others suffer from overweight, obesity and the associated long term diet-related non communicable diseases. More alarming, is that Type II Diabetes, once nearly exclusively an adult diet-related disease, is now occurring in children.

We have reached an important tipping point for our children’s health. Now, more than ever, we have a chance to shift the landscape and halt the burgeoning problem of childhood malnutrition in all its forms. The Sustainable Development Goals and United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition have provided us with a renewed political commitment, and recent analytical reports, such as the Global Panel’s Foresight Report, provide us with the scientific evidence to support shifts in policy priorities.

Success, though, will require a fundamental change to our approach. We need to reposition our priorities from feeding children to nourishing them, and alter the way we think about malnutrition, to focus on diets rather than nutrients.

Likewise, we must break from our silos and connect policy makers across trade, infrastructure, agriculture, the environment and health sectors, bringing together coordinated action from governments, civil society academia and the private sector. Nowhere is this more important than in policies to provide healthy school meals. Locally-sourced school meals are a multiple-win opportunity for policymakers with important benefits not only for a child’s nutrition, but for national socioeconomic growth.

Credit Partnership for Child Development, Imperial College London.jpgImage: Partnership for Child Development, Imperial College London
The provision of school meals in schools can lead to improvements in a child’s cognitive development, improvements in their language ability, academic achievements and therefore employment and income in later life. In addition to that, local school feeding programmes can have impacts that are felt right across the food system, as detailed in the Global Panel’s brief.

School feeding programmes can benefit local farming communities and stimulate local markets to produce and sell diverse, nutritious and sustainable foods. In Kenya, the annual income of farmers has been shown to increase by US$50 per year, when schools purchase maize from them, rather than relying on national stocks or food aid.

Healthy, locally sourced school meals can also empower vulnerable groups, enrich the community and generate jobs. In India for example, nutritious fortified rice-lentil mixes for schools (Indiamix) are being produced by local women’s groups.

School meals can also provide an important buffer during food shortages, or food price spikes. During a severe drought in India, children participating in the School Midday Meals scheme did not suffer the declines in growth demonstrated by children who did not participate.

Better school attendance and improved dietary habits outside school hours are also seen in children consuming healthy school meals. These improved dietary habits are likely to extend into other members of the household. Studies across 32 African countries showed school enrolment by girls increased by 28% during the year after meals were made available.

Credit World Bank.jpgImage: World Bank
Evidence also suggests that healthy meals in schools, combined with nutrition education and physical activity has the potential to mitigate rising rates of overweight among children, as we push to prevent the increasing ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition in many countries. 

In India, we are seeing these transformational benefits. Almost 100 million children across 265,000 schools currently have free access to a balanced and nutritious midday meal. Likewise, in Ghana, 4,000 schools partake in a Government initiative where food is procured from local farmers, serving over 1.6 million children.

In short, healthy school meals will not only improve a child’s long-term quality of life, but is likely to also positively impact the family and the community, as well as having wider socio- economic and environmental benefits. They also help reposition our food systems to focus on diet quality, empowering children, parents and guardians to demand better diets.

If we are to convince policy makers to focus on healthy school meals and improved child nutrition, we must present our arguments beyond just the health benefits, particularly focussing on social and economic prosperity. The 19 th Global Child Nutrition Forum in Montreal this week represents a unique opportunity to illustrate what is technically feasible and economically viable.

Let’s not allow our future food systems to fail our children.

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition is an independent group of influential experts and leaders who hold or have held high office and who show strong personal commitment to improving nutrition. Members convene international and regional high-level round table meetings and use their extensive networks in governments, civil society, academia and industry to bring together and influence policymakers from different sectors in the food system. The Panel also produces evidence-based technical and policy reports, as well as tailored country/regional papers.