Global price rises mean that food is literally being taken out of the mouths of hungry children whose parents can no longer afford to feed them. Nutritionist Andrew Thorne-Lyman, tells WFP web writer Michelle Hough what this could mean for generations to come.
Have you ever wished you were taller? Healthier? Smarter?
There’s a whole generation of children who probably won’t be able to achieve any of these goals, all because global price rises mean that their food portions are getting smaller and
One study showed that kids in Guatemala who received a nutritional supplement in the first two years of life had a higher income later on than those who didn’t
their meals are getting fewer.
“Even temporarily depriving children of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive can leave permanent scars in terms of stunting their physical growth and intellectual potential,” says Andrew Thorne-Lyman, a nutritionist with WFP.
Families in the developing world are finding their buying power has been slashed by food price rises, meaning they can buy less food or food which isn’t as nutritious.
"The new face of hunger"
These people have become the “new face of hunger” as high prices edge them into poverty and they can no longer feed themselves.
Thorne-Lyman says that when this happens, people try to cope with price increases in any way they can. Often, they cut out more expensive foods such as meat, fruit and vegetables and just eat basic staples such as rice or maize.
This has serious implications for child development as without sufficient vitamins and minerals, children are at greater risk of disease and stunted growth.
Children hit by price rises
“Looking at data from Bangladesh in the 1990s, as rice prices rose, so did child malnutrition,” says Thorne-Lyman. (1)
He explains that families didn’t necessarily stop buying less rice when the price went up - they just reduced their consumption of the vitamin and mineral-rich foods necessary to help children grow.
More seriously, if children are deprived of nutrients at essential stages of growth it impairs their mental development, which can have untold consequences in later life.
WFP has long prioritised mothers and young children when providing food assistance. Thorne-Lyman explains that there’s a “window of opportunity” for children under two, where good nutrition can help them grow healthy and strong.
Nutrition effects on income
However, once children are stunted because they didn't get the right foods, they don’t catch up. This can have long-term effects on their economic productivity.
“One study showed that kids in Guatemala who received a nutritional supplement in the first two years of life had a higher income later on than those who didn’t,” he says. (2)
But now food and fuel costs have risen, and the dollar has fallen, WFP’s budget is stretched to the limit. Meanwhile, high prices have left more and more people in need of food assistance, so WFP is faced with a series of difficult choices about who to feed.
For example, WFP’s Kenya programme may have to cut food to 550,000 children in schools this year. It was either this or not provide food to people with HIV/AIDS.
"Food is essential for people under-going anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS because many of them are malnourished,” says Thorne-Lyman.
“These people rely on our help because many of them haven't been able to work for months due to their sickness. The combination of treatment and food gets them back on their feet and able to work again," he says.
Education and the inter-generational link
However, growing children in the developing world also need help. WFP provided school meals to over 19 million children across the world last year in the knowledge that food is essential for good health and personal development.
A study undertaken in Indonesia and Bangladesh illustrated that for every year of education a woman has received, the odds of her child being stunted are reduced by 4-5 percent.
In other words, keeping children in school through programmes like school feeding is an investment that will pay dividends in the nutritional status of the next generation. (3)
The decisions that WFP is forced to take about who to feed today will have long-lasting implications on the people of tomorrow and the communities and nations in which they live.
WFP's tough decisions
“WFP is finding more and more that it has to make decisions about either feeding half as many people or giving people half as much food as they need. As a nutritionist, I often get asked what type of cut would cause the least harm. There is no right answer to this dilemma It’s a shame we have to make such decisions at all, especially when you consider that the world produces enough food for everyone,” says Thorne-Lyman.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned last week that the food price crisis, which has provoked riots across the globe, if not handled properly “…could trigger a cascade of other multiple crises - becoming a multi-dimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress, and even political security around the world.”
Threat to MDGs
The Secretary-General also said that the price surges of basic food stuffs could cancel out progress made towards the Millenium Development Goals – objectives which are aimed at creating a better life for millions of people in the developing world.
“Six out of the eight Millennium Development Goals depend on good nutrition,” says Thorne-Lyman. “This is not just an issue about ensuring that people have enough food to fill their stomachs — it’s about ensuring that this generation of children are given the opportunity to grow and learn properly so that they can get out of the poverty trap.”
So essentially, it’s about giving future generations in the developing world the same opportunities as us to be taller, healthier and smarter.