UNICEF Report Warns the Global Food System is Failing Children
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The report finds that communities often face a triple burden of malnutrition - stunting and wasting; hidden hunger where children are deficient in vitamins and minerals; and overweight and obesity.

The report argues that it is critical to address malnutrition at every stage of a child’s life and to put children’s nutritional needs at the heart of food systems to achieve sustainable development.

October 2019: “More children and young people are surviving, but far too few are thriving,” notes the 2019 State of the World’s Children (SOWC) report. The publication, released by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), finds that two-thirds of all children under age five are at risk of malnutrition and hidden hunger due to the poor quality of their diets. SOWC calls for putting children’s rights at the heart of food systems to ensure that every child, young person and woman has nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable diets so that they can have a fair chance at life and meet their full potential.

Titled ‘Children, food and nutrition: Growing well in a changing world,’ the report finds that communities often face a “triple burden of malnutrition”: 149 million children five and under suffer from stunting and almost 50 million from wasting; 240 million children are experiencing “hidden hunger”, deficiencies of vitamins and minerals; and rates of overweight and obese children are rapidly increasing. Between 2000 and 2016, the proportion of overweight children (5 to 19 years old) rose from one in 10 to nearly one in five. Overall, the report warns that too many children and young people are eating too little healthy food and too much unhealthy food.

Too many children and young people are eating too little healthy food and too much unhealthy food.

The report warns that malnutrition “profoundly harms” children’s growth and development and can prevent children and societies from reaching their full potential. Stunting, for example, is both “a symptom of past deprivation and a predictor of future poverty” and results in poor cognition, school-readiness and school performance. Children and young people from the poorest and most marginalized communities are most likely to experience all forms of malnutrition, “perpetuating poverty across generations.” Poor families generally choose low-quality food that costs less; only one in five children six to 23 months from the poorest households and rural areas is fed the minimum recommended diverse diet for healthy brain development and growth. Worldwide, close to 45% of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables, while close to 60% do not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat. Approximately 42% of adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consume sugary soft drinks at least once a day.

Stunting is both “a symptom of past deprivation and a predictor of future poverty”

The report argues these challenges must be understood within the context of a rapidly changing world, including the globalization of food systems, which is resulting in increased availability of food high in calories but low in nutrients, and increased growth in urban populations. Further, biodiversity loss, climate shocks and damage to water, air and soil are worsening the nutritional prospects for millions of children, especially poor children. The report underscores the importance of focusing on nutrition and health throughout all aspects of the food system, including all elements and activities involved in producing, processing, distributing, preparing and consuming food.

UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, stressed that winning the battle on malnutrition “needs the political determination of national governments, backed by clear financial commitments,” in the report’s forward. Fore further emphasized the need for policies and incentives to encourage the private sector to invest in nutritious, safe and affordable food and a “determination to make children’s nutrition a priority” across both the food system and in the health, education, water and sanitation, and social protection systems. 

The report concludes with an ‘Agenda to Put Children’s Nutrition Rights First,’

  1. “Empower families, children and young people to demand nutritious food;
  2. Drive food suppliers to do the right thing for children;
  3. Build healthy food environments for all children;
  4. Mobilize supportive systems—health, water and sanitation, education and social protection—to scale up nutrition results for all children; and
  5. Collect, analyze and use good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress.”

UNICEF launched its new nutrition strategy in coordination with the report. The strategy outlines UNICEF’s priorities and plans to improve the nutrition of children, young people and women.

In addition to the main report, UNICEF released accompanying regional briefs for East Asia and the Pacific, Eastern and Southern Africa, Latin America and Caribbean, South Asia, and West and Central Africa. The number of stunted children declined in every continent except Africa. The number of overweight children increased in all continents. An interactive web features highlights the ‘changing face of malnutrition.’ [UNICEF Press Release] [UNICEF Reporting Landing Page] [Publication: Children, food and nutrition: Growing well in a changing world] [SOWC Executive Summary] [UNICEF Executive Director Statement]

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