A response to UNICEF's Report on Child Food Poverty

On 6 June 2024, UNICEF published Child Food Poverty: Nutrition deprivation in early childhood. The report looks at “the status, trends, inequities and drivers of child food poverty in early childhood, including the impact of global and local food and nutrition crises”.

We take a dive into this report and look at how it correlates with what we are seeing in the communities where we work and the children who come to our programmes.

A boy eats some fruit while his family are behind him
Credit: Filmed & edited by Jordan & Cassie Timpy of Agape Visuals, www.agapevisuals.com

The state of food poverty in the countries we work in

In their community work in the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil and Tanzania, the Sisters of Mary see the terrible challenges faced by children living in extreme poverty.

Link between middle and low-income countries and child food poverty

South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular host more than 68% of all children living deprived of food ie ‘in food poverty’ – UNICEF Report1Child Food Poverty: Nutrition deprivation in early childhood. All these children are a priority for our work.

In the most deprived regions, the children of poor families struggle for survival, deprived of shelter, water for drinking and sanitation, access to healthcare, education and particularly food.

A woman holding a water jug while carrying buckets on her head
Credit: Filmed & edited by Jordan & Cassie Timpy of Agape Visuals, www.agapevisuals.com

Lack of income driving food poverty

For the poorest families, lack of income is a driving force behind food poverty. Nutritious food is difficult to afford. Balanced, nutrient rich foods like meat, fruit and vegetables are expensive. Those children able to eat do so just once or twice a day, on a diet of easily available, cheap starchy foods like maize or rice which helps to fill stomachs but provides little nutritional value. The rising cost of food and food distribution issues post pandemic have made these food choices even more stark.

Fragile food environments

In more remote, rural settings, food poverty is also exacerbated by ‘fragile food environments’ – UNICEF Report2Child Food Poverty: Nutrition deprivation in early childhood. Rural food production is  insecure and easily disrupted by adverse weather and the effects of climate change leading to a vacuum in supply or an over abundance of one particular crop – none of which supports a balanced diet for the poorest children.

This lack of diversity in nutrition in the early years leads to developmental issues for children including stunting and under or malnutrition. The effects of this can last long into adulthood.

two girls sitting on the ground

Poor food education

Food poverty is also driven by lack of awareness of the foods required by children to thrive.  Poor parents have little education or access to information on the nutrition needed for their  youngsters. This lack of knowledge, unless addressed, is handed down by generation.

Our experience of food poverty in communities

The Sisters observe poor food education like this during their community visits. Sister Jasmin reported that the poor families they reach in the poorest regions of their countries of operation are still “living in precarious poverty”. They have little food each day, many just eat what they can find and they have no way of buying more.

In Tanzania, the youngsters they encounter in remote rural areas like Arusha, Hombolo & Kibaigwa rarely eat more than one meal a day. Farming is their life and crop production has been severely affected by the extremes of changing weather patterns. Extreme heat kills crops and extreme rainy seasons wash land and crops away.

The children who come into their care from these regions are severely affected by the lack of food. They are weak with hunger, wasted by malnutrition, under size for their age, and in many cases stunted.

a little boy sits at a table at nursery eating holding a thumbs up

How our programmes address food poverty

When the children are welcomed into our schools they are food poor and very urgently in need of our care. Alongside the obvious signs of malnutrition, our children also suffer other illnesses and dental problems all derived from lack of early nutrition.

Providing a good, balanced diet for the boys and girls is the immediate priority. Hungry children cannot learn and so nutrition is key to their recovery and chance to succeed at school. The Sisters are experienced in designing diets to deliver the right nutrition to the youngsters in their charge but it is an emotional time of adjustment for the children who have lived on so little for so long.

Food gives children hope

For many new children, the food at school is a highlight for them and one of the things they talk about as their favourite thing about coming to school. Ana Carolina is one of these students who talks about the difference food made to her start in school.

Boys having a meal with a Sister

Supplying three meals a day

At school they have three balanced meals each day packed with essential vitamins which are crucial for them to recover from their early lives and grow. Meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables as well as starchy staples are provided within the diet to give the children the diverse nutrients they so urgently need. Much of this food is now grown at the programmes or sourced locally. The results of this new diet are immediate. Within just a few weeks the health of the children is transformed. They grow healthy and well and steadily begin to thrive in our care.

Learning to eat well

Importantly the children also learn how to eat well. Educating the children on how to feed themselves, cook and eat a diet rich in nutrients for a healthy life is an essential life lesson.

Cooking is a key part of the school curriculum for the children to learn how to prepare food, eat well and maintain their health into independent life. When the children are able to share this knowledge with their poor families and communities, learn how to make nutritious food, improve production and supply by growing and making more themselves, real progress is possible towards reducing food poverty.