Photo Credit: Narendra Bisht/Outlook

World Hunger Day: Overflowing Granaries, Starving Children

Unless we empower women and aggressively promote diet diversity, millions of our children will continue to die hungry.

Sai Krishna Dammalapati | May 28, 2020

India produced 291.95 Million Tonnes of food grains in 2019-20. Yet, 69% of the deaths of children under the age of 5 have been attributed to malnutrition by UNICEF in State of World’s Children report. Global Hunger Index ranked India at 102nd position out of 117, the lowest in South Asia. World Bank’s Human Capital Index scored India at 0.44. This means that today’s Indian child will only reach 44% of her potential when she becomes an adult. This was also primarily because of the state of nutrition in India.

What explains this dichotomy? While India was growing economically at an appreciable pace, the progress in eliminating hunger did not. On World Hunger Day, let’s reflect on the factors for this malaise and ways to address it, especially because COVID-19 exacerbates the hunger crisis.

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Two of the indicators that should be considered to address Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) in Under-5 Children are: Diet Diversity, Breast-Feeding.

55% of Indian children between 6-23 months of age had zero consumption of vegetables and fruits based on data from 2013-18. This leads to vitamin and mineral deficiency in children. TechnoServe, an international non-profit, forecasted that fruits and vegetables will further see a 30% decline in demand as household incomes reduce due to COVID-19 crisis. This will further aggravate the SAM crisis.

India also has very poor diet diversity. As per the Global Hunger Report 2018, only 28% of Indian children ate more than 5 food items. Moreover, given our agriculture system, this diet is deficient of protein and micro-nutrients.

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India did well in continued Breast Feeding of Children - with 80% of children being breast-fed between 12-23 months. But, it did poorly in exclusive breast-feeding, which is important for child’s health in later stages. Only 55% of the infants below 6 months of age are exclusively breast-fed. The early initiation of breast-feeding i.e., infants being breast-fed within one hour of birth isalso poor in India at only 41%, depriving the infants of crucial nourishment like colostrum.

Globalisation and Urbanisation has also contributed to the global malnutrition. Alienated from the local food systems, the urban poor are consuming more highly processed - High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) foods. This led us to a dual burden of malnutrition, where SAM and Obesity exist together.

Fortunately the solution to the SAM crisis is not very expensive compared to the costs of mal-nutrition. UNICEF estimated that on an average there is an earnings loss of $1400 per child in her lifetime due to stunting. But this can be addressed by a simple investment of only $8.5 per child per year. The return on investments is so high that no rationally governed society can neglect.

India also has the administrative setup of Anganwadis and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) that are helpful in providing nutritional interventions at community level. Innovations at Anganwadi level will be helpful in fighting SAM during the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, in Maharasthra, Anganwadi workers are home-delivering cooked foods to pregnant, lactating women and children. Now that migrant workers have reached villages, the burden on Anganwadi Centres will be higher. Provision of PPE kits and adequate resources to the Anganwadi workers will ensure their effective fight against hunger.

India should also fix her food system. The Government of India has been instrumental in making Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) declare 2023 as “International Year of Millets”. It’s time to put the declaration into practice by incentivising production of millets that offer more diet diversity, and are also protein rich. They are good for the environment as well.

Lastly, data from Global Nutrition report 2020 shows a positive correlation between mother’s education and various indicators of child’s nutrition like breast feeding and diet diversity. Hence, the long term, sustainable solution to achieving Zero Hunger is in the heart of Women empowerment. Only then can the vicious cycle of hunger-poverty be turned into a virtuous cycle of healthy mother, healthy child and a healthy family.

(The author is a Development Communication Consultant)