1 In 4 Children Suffer Severe Food Poverty, India Among Worst-Hit: UNICEF

Of the 181 million children in severe food poverty, 64 million are in South Asia, and 59 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.

1 In 4 Children Suffer Severe Food Poverty, India Among Worst-Hit: UNICEF

UNICEF Child Food Poverty Report: Representational Image

A recent UNICEF report titled 'Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood' has revealed disturbing statistics about the state of child food poverty worldwide. According to the report, one in four children globally is living in severe food poverty, surviving on just one or two food groups a day, and sometimes even less. This deprivation places 181 million children at risk of severe malnutrition, impacting children's growth, development, and overall well-being.

The Extent Of The Crisis

The UNICEF report defines severe child food poverty as the condition where young children are unable to access and consume a nutritious and diverse diet. This is measured using the UNICEF and WHO dietary diversity scores.

The report highlights that severe child food poverty is particularly prevalent in regions like South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Notably, 65 per cent of the 181 million children affected globally reside in just 20 countries, including India, Guinea, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. These nations are home to the majority of children suffering from severe dietary deprivation, with 64 million affected children in South Asia alone.

The report categorizes countries into low, medium, and high-risk groups, with India falling into the high-risk category.

Global Impact And Inequities

Of the 181 million children in severe food poverty, 64 million are in South Asia, and 59 million in Sub-Saharan Africa. Somalia, with 63 per cent of its children affected, and the Gaza Strip, where nine in ten children are living in severe food poverty, stand out as the most dire examples.

The report highlights significant disparities in food poverty levels across regions. In the worst-affected areas, such as Somalia, 63 per cent of children experience severe food poverty. In contrast, Belarus has the lowest levels of child food poverty. The report underscores that while economic recovery post-COVID-19 is underway, the compounded effects of inequity, conflict, and climate crises have exacerbated the situation, pushing food prices and living costs to record highs.

Children living in severe food poverty are up to 50 per cent more likely to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition. They are primarily fed starchy staples and breastmilk or milk, with less than 10 per cent consuming fruits and vegetables, and less than 5 per cent getting nutrient-dense foods like eggs, fish, poultry, or meat. The deprivation not only affects physical health but also hampers cognitive development and educational outcomes, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and malnutrition across generations.

Causes Of Child Food Poverty

Multiple factors contribute to the crisis. While household income is a significant determinant, the report indicates that more than half of the children experiencing severe food poverty live in relatively wealthier households. As per the report, 46 per cent of affected children live in poor households, but 54 per cent are in households with income above the poverty line. This suggests household income is a significant factor, but not the sole determinant.

Other critical drivers include poor food environments, inadequate feeding practices, and the aggressive marketing of cheap, unhealthy foods. This scenario is exacerbated by conflicts, climate crises, and economic disparities, pushing food prices to record highs and making nutritious food unaffordable for many families.

India: A Closer Look

India is among the top 25 nations severely affected by child food poverty. In Asia, India ranks third after Afghanistan and Bhutan. The report reveals that a significant portion of Indian children under the age of five are living in severe food poverty, which is defined as consuming at most two of eight food groups daily.

Despite various government initiatives aimed at addressing child poverty, challenges persist. Factors such as limited access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities, especially in rural areas, continue to hinder progress. The disparity between urban and rural regions further exacerbates the issue, with rural children more likely to suffer from severe food poverty.

Implications For Policy and Action

UNICEF's report calls for urgent action to transform food systems, making nutritious foods more accessible and affordable. It stresses the need to strengthen health systems to deliver essential nutrition services and activate social protection measures to address income poverty. The establishment of the Child Nutrition Fund (CNF), supported by various global partners, is a crucial step towards mobilizing resources to end child malnutrition.

Governments, development agencies, civil society, and the private sector are urged to collaborate, leveraging their resources and expertise to implement sustainable solutions.