With one out of every three children stunted and one out of every 10 children wasted, leading to 17 million children undernourished in Nigeria, a new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has showed that unless stakeholders act now, Nigeria will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2) of Zero Hunger by 2030.
The report, “Fed to Fail? The Crisis of Children’s Diets in Early Life”, released on Wednesday, ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit this week, warned that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.
Children under the age of two are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm, says the report, adding that young children’s diets show no improvement in last decade and could get much worse under COVID-19.
In an analysis of 91 countries, including Nigeria, the UNICEF report finds that half of children aged six to 23 months globally are not being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day, adding that two-thirds do not consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.
According to the report, the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, in Nigeria, showed that among children aged six to 23 months, only 23 per cent have the minimum necessary dietary diversity, and only 42 per cent have minimum adequate meal frequency.
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drive more families into poverty, the report finds that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children.
Refering to a study conducted in Nigeria last year, the UNICEF report stated that Nigerians were already largely unable to afford healthy diets due to pre-existing food security challenges, with an estimated 40.1 percent of Nigerians unable to cater for their food expenditure and it is likely that this will only be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. With Nigeria being the highest burden of malnutrition in Africa and the second highest in the world, the report said that Nigeria is off track to achieve zero hunger by 2030.
To change this trajectory, the report recommended that the time to act is now to reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems.
To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child year-round, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods and by incentivizing their production, distribution and retailing.
“Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
“Increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information,” it added.
UNICEF Nigeria deputy representative, Rushnan Murtaza said the findings of the report are clear, millions of young children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development, adding that “Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures. Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria.”
Murtaza said, “We have reached a crucial tipping point. Only by joining hands with partners, government and relevant stakeholders, can we transform the Nigerian food system and provide access to diverse, nutritious, safe and affordable diets for every Nigerian child.
“The upcoming Food Systems Summit provides us the opportunity to reimagine food systems that create a fundamental shift from feeding people to nourishing them. We must apply these learnings to Nigeria, so that we can secure a healthy future for our children.”