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Fighting food poverty

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UNICEF has warned that more than one in four children under the age of five globally live in “severe” food poverty – meaning more than 180 million are at risk of experiencing adverse impacts on their growth and development.

“Severe child food poverty describes children who are surviving on severely deprived diets so they’re only consuming two or less food groups,” said Harriet Torlesse, a lead writer of a new UNICEF report. “It is shocking in this day and age where we know what needs to be done.”

UNICEF recommends that young children eat foods daily from five of eight main groups – breast milk; grains, roots, tubers and plantains; pulses, nuts and seeds; dairy; meat, poultry and fish; eggs; vitamin A rich fruits and vegetables; and other fruits and vegetables.

However, 440 million children under the age of five, living in about 100 low and middle income countries, are living in food poverty, meaning they do not have access to five food groups each day. Of those, 181 million are experiencing severe food poverty, or eating from at most two food groups.

“Children who consume just two food groups per day – for example, rice and some milk – are up to 50 percent more likely to experience severe forms of malnutrition,” UNICEF chief Catherine Russell said in a statement accompanying the report.

And even if these children survive and grow up, “they certainly don’t thrive. So they do less well at school,” Torlesse explained. That leads to them earning less income as adults, which turns the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next.

Worldwide, the agency noted “slow progress over the past decade” in addressing the crisis, and called for better social services and humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable children. It also called for a rethink of the global food processing system, saying that sugary drinks and ultraprocessed foods were being “aggressively marketed to parents and families and are the new normal for feeding children.”

Food poverty is a serious problem that has far reaching consequences, especially among children. Governments have to do better to address it, starting with more investments in better social services and nutrition programs and initiatives that can give those who can hardly feed themselves worthwhile options during difficult times, just so everyone has access to proper food, and fend off the worst and long term effects of malnutrition and stunting.*

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