Nationwide lockdowns, extreme weather conditions, altered environment conditions, crop-damaging locust attacks have disturbed food systems.
By Swaran Singh
An invisible crisis is building in the wake of COVID-19. According to a UN report titled The State of Food Security and Nutrition 2020, the pandemic will add 83 – 132 million more people to the total number of undernourished in the world. This is one of the most severe and long-term impacts of the pandemic. Nationwide lockdowns, extreme weather conditions, altered environment conditions, crop-damaging locust attacks have disturbed food systems. A more significant number of families will be forced to opt for nutrient-low substitutes, resulting in malnourished children and affecting pregnant women and nursing mothers. There is an urgent need for governments and society to address the coming crisis.
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Investing in nutrition is a fast and smart strategy to drive development, address poverty and protect human rights. The World Bank says that the return of nutritional investments can be as high as 1: 35 – that’s a Rs 35 return on every rupee invested in a quality diet.
Some corporates are aware of the role of nutrition in nation building. The social arm of a leading two-wheeler manufacturer, as an example, has been consistently working to improve the access of clean drinking water and better nutrition amongst women and children. A holistic solution implemented by the trust with the support of government departments in Alwarthirunagari Block of Tuticorin District in Tamil Nadu, where it has identified and transformed the lives of severely malnourished children.
India tackling malnutrition
The UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition report highlights that last year 21% of children under 5 were stunted, 6.9% were too thin and 5.6% overweight. While dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, India is also addressing increased levels of malnourishment, especially amongst children below the age of five years. Malnutrition caused 69 per cent of deaths of children below the age of five in India, according to a UNICEF report. Poor nutrition carries a significant economic burden for individuals and entire economies. To take the necessary steps in solving this crisis, there must be an awareness of the various factors of malnutrition in the country. High levels of maternal undernutrition, leading to low birth-weights have caused the inter-generational cycle of under-nutrition that prevails in most communities.
Early childhood is the most crucial period of life when the foundations are laid for cognitive, social, emotional, physical development. Extreme poverty, low dietary diversity and mother’s lack of education are among the key risk factors that contribute to malnutrition of children in India. Most of the people in rural India are not aware of their health, nutrition, balanced diet and breastfeeding practices. Government of India has undertaken comprehensive community nutritional programmes to combat child malnutrition and to get nutrition on track. However, nutrition communication campaigns can’t be effective and successful in their purpose if these key contributing factors are not addressed. As frontline warriors, India’s 1.4 million Anganwadi workers, who are the core of India’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, play an essential role in breaking the cycle of malnourishment by identifying under nourished children in the local communities and providing sustainable learning to mothers and families on basic, health, nutrition, immunisation, the importance of micronutrients to combat malnutrition in India.
The Anganwadi worker is the most important functionary of the ICDS scheme. They are the community based front line worker of the ICDS Programme. To improve the nutritional status in rural India, more support must be provided to empower the Anganwadi workers. Providing access to digital technology and financial benefits can help multiply the difference they make in addressing the nutritional crisis. The technology will enable them to review their interventions better and prioritise their actions for improved outcomes.
Creating Change at the Grassroot
Joining hands with the national effort, Srinivasan Services Trust- the social arm of a leading two-wheeler manufacturer has conducted nutritional food preparation demonstrations that assist mothers in understanding healthy cooking practices. The Trust has conducted more than 100 demonstrations in 50 Anganwadis and 150 nutritional awareness initiatives for women in the past year. Over a few months, through consistent guidance and dialogue with parents, there has been a profound improvement in the individual weights of the children. These visible results have motivated family members in maintaining their nutritional practices.
Given the enormity of the challenge at hand, corporate interventions / campaigns will have a long- term role to play to protect future generations from malnourishment and poor health. Successful and sustained nutrition initiatives need the collaboration of government agencies, non-governmental organisations, policymakers, schools, civil society, food industry, and media. These partnerships will ensure attain the long-standing goal of zero malnutrition.
(The author is IAS (Retd). He is the Chairman of the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST), social arm of TVS Motor Company. Views expressed are personal.)