Though many of us may not notice it, hunger and malnutrition are more prevalent than we thought. Specifically, there are three manifestations of poor diets- Undernutrition (hunger or poor diets), hidden hunger (where essential nutrition is deficient), and overweight or obesity (where diets are unhealthy and lack essential nutrition). In fact, undernutrition and overnutrition (deficiency in essential nutrition) affects about half of the global population. The consequences of malnutrition are severe. Almost half of the deaths of children under 5 years of age are associated with undernutrition, while unhealthy diets resulting in obesity affect millions of children under 5 across the world. Undernutrition affects a nation’s GDP negatively by almost one-tenth percent year-on-year.
How COVID-19 has complicated matters?
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a devastating blow to those in need and those most vulnerable. The resultant lockdowns stole the livelihoods of millions of poor people across the world, making them vulnerable to hunger, starvation, disease, and ultimately, COVID-19.
Disruption to health and nutrition services
The most disadvantaged sections of society are heavily reliant on government services, especially for health and education. Due to the short-term absence of these services, there was an estimated 10 percent increase in the deaths of children under the age of 5 every month. To make matters worse, the number of maternal deaths also increased exponentially, making the poor and hungry the most affected due to the pandemic.
Increased vulnerability towards pre-existing diseases and micronutrient deficiencies
Due to the lack of access to nutritious food, many people suffering from micronutrient deficiencies or ‘hidden hunger’ had to depend on cheap ultra-processed food that was unhealthy and contributed to obesity. In fact, the proliferation of these unhealthy junk food resulted in stunting for many people while contributing to obesity in others. As schools were closed, children in many countries did not have access to their nutritious school meals, missed lessons was an altogether different matter.
The pandemic made it difficult for those working in Feed the Hungry organizations to provide relief to affected communities. Nevertheless, they have overcome all odds to provide aid to those in need.
How can we support vulnerable communities against disease and hunger?
To address the nutritional needs of disadvantaged communities, we should
1. Provide critical community-based health services – This includes timely immunizations, basic primary health care, and micronutrient supplements.
2. Partner with farmers to give the hungry the nutritious food they deserve – Many organizations working with the poor like Catholic Donation Centers and others can get nutritious produce from farmers and distribute them to those less fortunate. Many such organizations get the poor the food they need- basic staples like wheat, rice, vegetables, and fruit. Governments should ensure food is adequately distributed with the help of public ration shops or relevant distribution channels.
3. Provide safety net programs fortified with essential nutrition – Whether it is school meals, special schemes for pregnant women, or other programs to feed the hungry, these should come fortified with essential minerals and vitamins.
4. Scale-up cash transfer programs – Governments and organizations working for eradicating hunger should scale up and keep the momentum of cash transfer programs to help the hungry access nutritious food. Many governments have innovated here by directly transferring cash to the beneficiary’s bank accounts and keeping records online.
5. Roll out national communication campaigns – Organizations like Catholic Connect and others spread awareness about the grim challenges faced by the poor and hungry. Steps should be taken to encourage people to contribute towards making the world a better place for those less fortunate..
Eradicating hunger and malnutrition is easier said than done. It would take the collective efforts of all stakeholders to ensure each child is especially well-fed so that they can survive and thrive in this world.